The Seattle City Council has voted once again to keep the mayor’s hands off sweetened-beverage tax revenue after she used it to supplant general fund dollars for certain human services programs in her 2019-20 biennial budget.

Seattle City Council voted 7-1 in favor of creating a dedicated fund for all sweetened-beverage tax revenue on Monday, July 23, so the council can better use the money for its intended purpose, which is primarily to create better access to healthy food for low-income communities and communities of color.

Mayor Jenny Durkan had taken additional revenue generated by the tax and used it to free up general fund dollars that had been used for the Fresh Bucks program, food banks, children’s nutrition, the Child Care Assistance Program, the Parent Child Home Program and the Nurse Family Partnership. Taking the sweetened-beverage tax revenue and putting it toward those general fund programs allowed her to put the original general fund dollars toward other priorities.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who sponsored the legislation to create a dedicated fund for the sweetened-beverage tax, has argued that the revenue should be used for its original purpose, particularly reinvesting in and expanding food security and nutritional health education programs for low-income people and communities of color most impacted by the tax.

Durkan vetoed the legislation on Aug. 2, criticizing it as cutting $6.3 million in funding for critical programs without identifying how to replace it with new revenue or other budget reductions.

“I agree that the Sweetened Beverage Tax is regressive and should be used only for the purposes set forth in the adopting ordinance, and to further expand important City investments for our most vulnerable population,” the mayor wrote in her veto letter. “Every one of the programs funded in the adopted and endorsed budget met these requirements. Council has now changed its mind and only wants to fund new programs.”

The Seattle City Council voted 6-3 on Monday, Aug. 12, to override the mayor’s veto.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed out that an amendment to the original legislation clarifies the council’s intent is that no funding be reduced for these impacted programs, and that the mayor is expected to identify other sources to fill the $6.3 million gap.

“I am extremely disappointed that we are here today. I am extremely disappointed that again we have to have this conversation about how we will not engage in an austerity budget,” said Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. “We are not going to engage in pitting populations against populations, communities of color against communities of color. We are not going to engage in children versus seniors, or those who are housed versus those who are unhoused. We are talking about the very core services of government, and those core services of government should be coming from the general fund.”

Mosqueda said sweetened-beverage tax revenue was always supposed to go back to the communities most affected by the tax, which was meant to be a public health intervention.

The city council passed the 1.75-cent-per-ounce tax on distributors in June 2017, which was passed on to consumers. The goal was to curb consumption of unhealthy, sugary drinks while using the tax revenue to get healthy food to low-income families. A portion of the revenue also goes toward the 13th Year Promise scholarship.

But consumption didn’t go down, and the city’s budget office ended up increasing its initial 2018 revenue projection of $15 million.

Mosqueda said consumption of sugary drinks didn’t go down because more tax revenue wasn’t being put toward things like education programs, community gardens and food-assistance programs in those most impacted communities.

Council president Bruce Harrell said he’d been against the tax at first, because it would affect black and brown communities most.

“And some of the same faces that I’m looking at now convinced me that this revenue stream is for the long-term health of our community,” he said.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant also voted against the regressive tax in 2017, but said the Aug. 12 vote was about giving revenue back to the people who were supposed to benefit from it. She also criticized existing budget spending, such as $400 million this year for policing, $10 million for sweeping homeless encampments and $1 million to study congestion fees, or “regressive tolls on city streets.”

“This bill cuts nothing, however, the mayor’s lie, while absurd on the face, needs to be taken seriously,” Sawant said, “because she has the power to propose a different kind of budget. And if she says that programs will be cut, she is effectively threatening to cut the funding to the programs if the social service operators do not fall into line.”

All of these programs could continue being funded, Sawant said, if the city had the political will to tax big businesses.

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw had attempted to get support to hold off on the legislation until the start of a new budget cycle when it was before the Finance and Neighborhoods Committee in July, but only temporary Councilmember Abel Pacheco took her side. Both voted in support of Durkan’s veto on Aug. 12.

Knowing that the council had the votes to override, Bagshaw urged councilmembers to prioritize revenue for important programs in October.

 “We also know some of our investments aren’t working and we’re not getting the services that we expect,” Bagshaw said.

Bagshaw called on fellow councilmembers to look for one-time funds that could be cut to preserve funding for the programs in the general fund that are losing their sweetened-beverage tax revenue backfill.

Councilmember Debora Juarez also voted against overriding the veto, but made no statement before the Aug. 12 vote.