The American Beverage Association—the lobby for major soda pop manufacturers and distributors like Coca-Cola and Pepsi—has made another massive contribution to a state ballot initiative that would repeal a tax on junk food. They gave $4.2 million last week, according to reports released yesterday by the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, bringing the lobby's total contribution to $14.4 million.

It's now the most highly funded initiative campaign in state history (the previous record was $11.5 million spent to oppose Referendum 67 in 2007).

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  • Ananda Lavita
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Initiative 1107 would remove a temporarily increase on tax on soda, candy, and bottled water, and remove a negligible tax on food processors.

The folks behind Initiative I-1107 talk a good line about how this measure would repeal a tax on food, a tax that affects poor people. This is not about food and it's not about poor people*. Of the $14.4 million that the campaign has raised, only $310 has come from individual donors. This is about national soda conglomeration that has the resources to drop millions of dollars to prevent what they clearly perceive as a threatening trend of states taxing their subsidized, artificially inexpensive, unhealthy junk food as the unnecessary luxury that it is.

That said, there's no way this campaign will lose (the other side has only $304,000). It's outspending the opposition by a margin of 46 to 1.

* There is another discussion that this issue repeatedly brings up in comments. The regressive tax structure in Washington—the one that relies on sales taxes that disproportionately affect the poor, who spend much of their income on food and other products—needs to change (and we've criticized it repeatedly and lambasted the cowardice lawmakers have shown in fixing it). But political realities dictate that the legislature can't fix it anytime soon. Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, who presides over the state senate, has said an income tax requires a constitutional amendment and thus needs a two-thirds majority to pass. That majority isn't there in the senate.

If a progressive tax will be implemented, it will be done by initiative. The measure we have on hand now is I-1098 (which would impose an income tax on the highest wage earners). But the state's Office of Financial Management says it is "estimated to generate a net increase in state revenue of $11.16 billion over five calendar years to be used exclusively for education and health services." So none of that money goes to the state general fund.

So yes, temporary regressive taxes suck, but they are the only thing holding key services of the state budget afloat for the next few years. For instance, programs like Basic Health and higher education funding can stay in place because of the taxes we have now—programs that help the poorest people in the state. If we strike the soda tax, that money disappears. And it won't come back by yelling "income tax" and "stop regressive taxation" this election season because those are fights for another day. Preserving essential state programs is the fight actually on the ballot.