James Gecko
James Gecko

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The FY 2020 budget feels especially tight, and after more than 10 hours cooped up in a room hashing out the city’s spending, things got a little snippy between D.C.’s lawmakers last night.

The tension over a proposed soft drink tax hike, among other increases, pitted Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh against Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie in a discussion of healthy food access and who on the Council has jurisdiction over tax increases.

Cheh, who is eager to fund several nutritional programs that were left out of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget, wants to increase the current sales tax on soft drinks from 7 percent to 8 percent. McDuffie objected to Cheh’s proposed increase, saying during last night’s budget meeting that he supports the programs but wants to find alternative sources of revenue to fund them.

The 1 percent increase would generate enough revenue for the Healthy Students Amendment Act of 2018, which improves the quality and accessibility of school breakfast, the Healthy Parks Amendment Act of 2018, which provides free dinner for low-income children at DPR facilities during the summer when school is out, the Produce RX program, which allows doctors to write patients prescriptions for fresh produce, and a program that expands the number of retailers that can accept WIC.

If the soft drink tax plan falls through, the city will have to find $3.2 million elsewhere in the budget for these programs, in addition to a fifth that addresses lead pipes. Otherwise they won’t be funded for fiscal year 2020.

“What we’re talking about here is stripping funding for school breakfast, expanded access for WIC redemption, and produce for diabetic patients,” says DC Greens Executive Director Lauren Shweder Biel. Her organization supports these programs as part of its mission to address food access and food justice in the District through policy and education. “These programs are threatened right now and that can’t stand. This is about the thousands of residents that will be harmed.”

“It’s perfectly fitting and appropriate that these nutrition programs be funded by a tax on sugary drinks,” Cheh says. The proposed increase does not apply to drinks that are 100 percent juice or at least 50 percent milk, and applies to retailers, not restaurants. “Looking at the consumption of soda and the increase in weight, whether it’s correlation or causation, as the slope rises for consumption of sugary drinks it’s in tandem with the rising slope of overweight and obesity for kids.”

McDuffie objects to the sales tax increase, saying it’s a jurisdictional issue. Matters of taxation should go through the Committee on Tax and Revenue, chaired by Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, not Cheh’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment.

But Cheh thinks there’s more to the story.

“Basically, he is comfortable carrying the water for large corporations,” Cheh says, calling McDuffie’s jurisdictional argument a smokescreen. “I hear a lot of talk in this body about racial equity … Here’s equity staring you right in the face. Are you going to stand up for ‘Big Soda’ on the one hand or nutrition for poor kids?”

Cheh says she’s proposing an increase, not a new tax, and says there’s precedent for an action like this. In 2010 she took a similar approach to funding the Healthy Schools Act. She also suggests that McDuffie’s disagreement with her plan is his way of cozying up to “Big Soda.”

Cheh acknowledges that she hasn’t seen McDuffie taking meetings with soda lobbyists and doesn’t have any other proof. “I’m projecting because I know his behavior,” she explains. “I know how he comes out in favor of these large corporations. I don’t know why.”

McDuffie has fired back, saying Cheh “has a habit of engaging in hyperbole when it suits her politics.”

“This has nothing to do with what she’s alleging. It has to do with the rules of our body, of our Council,” McDuffie says. “You would think a tenured professor of law would care more about process.” (Cheh teaches constitutional law at The George Washington University)

“And if she sincerely cared about racial equity,” McDuffie adds, “she would have signed onto my bill to establish racial equity. In fact, she’s the only member who didn’t sign on as a co-sponsor.”

Cheh hopes she has the support to include the soft drink tax in the budget that the full council will vote on for the first time on May 14. She believes she has Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’ssupport on the matter of jurisdiction. “That’s not going to torpedo this,” she says. She also says she’s counting on Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White and Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray because she believes their constituents benefit most from the nutritional programs she’s seeking to fund.

“I’m hopeful because the chairman said if there’s support among the members, meaning the majority, that would be enough,” Cheh says.

Shweder Biel is crossing her fingers too.“I am absolutely hopeful that this will be resolved with a positive outcome,” she says. “We have a Council that understands the need to address the health disparities in our city and I believe that they’ll do the right thing. Every one of these programs is necessary.”

“Soda cans”by James Gecko is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0