Berkeley voters show support for soda tax, other taxes for November ballot

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Considering potential taxes for the November ballot, Berkeley voters showed substantial support for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, according to a city survey conducted earlier this month.

The survey found that 66 percent of Berkeley residents support a tax of 1 cent per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages, with 28 percent opposed. The measure would need 50 percent of the vote to pass, and if approved, the revenue would go into the city’s general fund.

Voters were then asked the same question with a specification that the money raised would be used for obesity and diabetes prevention programs. Such a tax, which would need 66 percent of the vote to pass, had 64 percent support.

Sampling 503 residents, the survey was conducted to gauge public support on myriad tax proposals, with the results to be presented to the council April 1. After another round of surveying, the council will decide which measures to place on the ballot in the summer.

Exact wording and specifications of the sugar-sweetened beverage tax for the ballot are still to be determined, though if it passes, Berkeley may be the first city in the nation to tax these beverages.

San Francisco, which may place a similar measure on its ballot to levy a 2-cent tax on sodas to fund nutrition and physical activity programs, conducted a survey in January. In a proposal that would require two-thirds approval to pass, only 51 percent of voters supported the measure.

In 2012, when Richmond tried to pass a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, soda industries concentrated millions of dollars in campaigns to defeat the ballot measure, reasoning that the tax would hurt low-income residents and small businesses. Councilmember Kriss Worthington, however, said corporations, even if they spend huge sums of money, “often don’t get their way in Berkeley.”

“A soda tax can raise awareness of the negative health effects of drinking soda and encourage people to choose healthier options,” said graduate student Jillian Eversole of the campus group Advocating for Soda Knowledge, in an email.

Citizens were also asked how they felt about a commercial vacancy tax, which would address Berkeley’s vacant storefronts by creating incentives for landlords to rent out their properties at lower prices, rather than keep them vacant at high rental prices. Fifty-four percent of voters supported such a tax, while 23 percent opposed it.

“I have conversations with people in Berkeley all the time, and despite what the surveys suggest, there is strong support for the vacancy tax,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin. “It’s absolutely critical in improving the character and the economic vitality of the city.”

Other surveyed taxes included a park parcel tax that would fund the renovation of parks and pools and a business license tax that could either go toward the city’s general fund or help finance affordable housing in Berkeley.

Contact Bo Kovitz at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @beau_etc.