“We Are Intentionally Tying Our Hands”: Council Passes Soda Tax Spending Plan with 7-Vote Majority

 

The simmering tension between the mayor’s office and the city council boiled over this afternoon, as the council passed (and Mayor Jenny Durkan immediately vowed to veto) legislation sponsored by council member Mike O’Brien that creates  a dedicated fund for excess revenues from the sweetened beverage tax, and stipulating that this money can only be used for new or expanded programs benefiting the low-income communities most heavily impacted by the tax. The vote was a veto-proof 7-1, with Debora Juarez (D5) absent and interim District 4 council member Abel Pacheco voting no.

“We are intentionally tying our hands,” O’Brien said Monday afternoon, by “making a clear policy statement that this money should be off limits except for the stated purposes” laid out in the legislation.

This debate has a long history. In 2017,  the council passed the controversial tax with the stipulation that the revenues from the tax would be poured back into programs promoting equitable food access in the communities most impacted by the tax—low-income communities and communities of color that lack access to affordable, healthy food. One year later, with soda tax revenues coming in higher than anticipated, Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed (and the council approved) a budget that used those “extra” dollars to fund food-access and education programs that had previously been funded through the city’s general fund. The budget swap came with a caveat: By 2019, the council said, Durkan needed to come up with a plan to ensure that soda tax revenues were used to fund healthy-food initiatives, not used to free up funding for other mayoral priorities.

Durkan expressed her “disappointment in the City Council’s vote to pass legislation that creates a significant hole in the City’s budget and cuts funding for critical low-income programs”

That didn’t happen, which brings us to the latest impasse. Last week, Durkan’s departments of Human Services and Education and Early Learning sent letters to providers warning them that the council planned to “cut” their funding. As I reported, dozens of service providers responded with letters rejecting this framing, condemning the mayor for (as they saw it) holding their funding hostage to a political battle over revenues that shouldn’t have been used to supplant general-fund dollars in the first place. On Monday, representatives from these groups showed up at city hall to support O’Brien’s legislation. For Durkan “to end funding for basic needs and services is the unthinkable and simply cruel,” El Centro de la Raza human services director Denise Perez Lally told the council—an especially blunt, but by no means isolated, assessment of Durkan’s position.

At the same time—and completely unbeknownst to the council—the Senior Action Coalition, a group that represents Chinese American seniors with limited English proficiency, showed up in force to oppose O’Brien’s legislation. It was unclear how many of the dozens of seniors who filled the council chambers were familiar with the details of the proposal. Several spoke generally, in English, in favor of preserving funding for food banks, but there were no translators for the non-English speakers in the crowd. “We weren’t told they were coming,” a surprised-looking council staffer said. Tanika Thompson, a food access organizer with Got Green, addressed the group directly during public comment. “I want you to know that the mayor has the power to fund your programs and is working on her budget right now,” Thompson said. “This is a scare tactic to pit our united organizations against each other.”

Pacheco, who was appointed to serve the remainder of former council member Rob Johnson’s position back in April, tried to introduce an amendment that would push back the effective date of the legislation until 2021, arguing that because the council “endorsed” a tentative 2020 budget last year as part of the normal budget process, any changes now would amount to “cuts.” (This is exactly the argument Durkan has made, arguing that O’Brien’s legislation “directly cuts” programs funded through 2020 in the endorsed version of the budget.) In fact, the mayor proposes a new budget every year; the “endorsed” second-year budget always changes—sometimes dramatically—based on a mayor’s priorities, available funding, and spending obligations created during the intervening year, making this an unusual and arguably tenuous argument that ignores the ordinary push-and-pull of the annual budget process.

“I don’t think that those of us who are sitting here now imagined a world in which we would be put in this unfortunate situation of manufactured division among communities of color and disadvantaged communities.” — Council member Lorena Gonzalez

After his amendments failed, Pacheco apologized to human services providers on behalf of the council for failing (before he was appointed) to secure long-term funding for the programs Durkan moved out of the general fund last year. This prompted a stinging rebuke from council member Lorena Gonzalez, who said, “The only apology that I’m going to give to the community is that we didn’t catch this when we passed it back in 2017, because it has always been our intent to have this be a dedicated revenue source.” Back then, Gonzalez continued, “I don’t think that those of us who are sitting here now imagined a world in which we would be put in this unfortunate situation of manufactured division among communities of color and disadvantaged communities and the pumping out of terribly inaccurate information that has resulted  in creating a tremendous amount of fear in community-based organizations.”

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