It’s not hard to figure out what prompted the creation of Washington Initiative 1634. Just look at the donor list for the Yes! To Affordable Groceries committee registered to support the measure that would prohibit local governments from imposing new taxes or fees on grocery items.
Top donors to the committee include PepsiCo, the Coca-Cola Company, Red Bull North America and the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. More than $8 million has been raised in support of the measure that, among other things, would prevent municipalities from copying the privilege tax on sweetened beverages such as soda adopted by Seattle in 2017.
Proponents of the measure say that adding taxes to any category of groceries would be regressive and impact poorer citizens the most while curtailing a person’s freedom to choose what they drink. Opponents decry the presence of corporations funding an effort that would take away local control of an issue and place it squarely with the state while eliminating a potential source of funding for public health programs.
Officials elected to represent Lewis County at the state and federal levels do not split hairs when it comes to which side they support.
“Telling local governments they can’t go put new taxes on food items I think is a good thing,” state Rep. Ed Orcutt (R-Kalama) said. “It’s about the taxes. You have a few local governments that want to run wild with it and you never know who would do something like that. I think it’s a bad deal to have different items to be taxed differently in different jurisdictions. It causes problems to consumers, employers, especially if they have locations in multiple jurisdictions. And a lot of these are small businesses.”
State Rep. Richard DeBolt (R-Chehalis) agrees with Orcutt, as does U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Battle Ground).
Herrera Beutler spokesperson Angeline Riesterer sent The Chronicle a statement in support of the measure on behalf of the congresswoman.
“Jamie intends to support this initiative,” the statement reads. “Encouraging folks to make healthy food decisions is laudable, but penalizing people with discriminatory taxes — particularly low-income residents — is the wrong way to do it.
An explanatory statement included in the Washington 2018 Voters’ Guide reads in part: “If adopted, Initiative 1634 would prevent local governments from imposing or collecting any new tax, fee or other assessment on certain grocery items after January 15, 2018. This restriction would prohibit any new local tax, fee, or assessment of any kind on the manufacture, distribution, sale, possession, ownership, transfer, transportation, container, use or consumption of certain groceries … Covered grocery items would include any raw or processed food or beverage, or any ingredient, intended for human consumption.”
Seattle shoppers pay an extra 1.75 cents per ounce on sweetened beverages. This raises the cost of a 20 ounce bottle of Pepsi or Coke by about 35 cents and would be grandfathered in should the measure pass.
Measure 1634 would not prevent the state legislature from imposing new taxes on groceries. Raw materials, such as milk, bread and meat, are not currently taxed but prepared foods such as pre-made deli items are.
Derris McDaniel, President of Shop’n Kar,t which runs the Fuller’s store at 505 S. Tower Ave. in Centralia, also supports the measure.
“It’s another way for our government to impose a tax that slips by most people but raises prices,” McDaniel said. “I don’t believe it is fair and equitable, and it just raises the price of groceries. We have so many people who are lower income in our area, we don’t need any more taxes on food.”
Other large-scale supporters of the measure are the Washington Food and Beverage Association, the Washington Farm Bureau and the Korean-American Grocers Association of Washington. Opponents include the Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition and the Permanent Defense PAC.