A proposal to tax soft drinks and other sugary beverages in Anchorage is drawing controversy in its lead up to Tuesday's Assembly meeting.
Assemblywoman Sheila Selkregg is proposing the tax but Mayor Dan Sullivan says the measure is government getting into people's food consumption and he is not in favor of it. Two other Assembly members have also said they are skeptical.
Selkregg, who represents East Anchorage, plans to propose a 2 cent tax on a can of soda and 4 cents for larger liter containers. The idea is being considered in several cities and states around the country and Selkregg said she came up with her suggested levies based on what other cities are doing.
Supporters say deterring soda consumption can help with the obesity epidemic; opponents say it's not fair to tax a specific product.
The Anchorage tax would be an excise tax and therefore would not require voter approval. The city already has such a tax on tobacco, as well as special sales taxes on things like hotel rooms and rental cars. The tobacco tax, which has been around for nearly 20 years, raised $16.4 million for the city in 2009. The city collects $1.46 in taxes for every pack of cigarettes sold.
"It would be a tool we could use," Selkregg said of the money a beverage tax would raise. "The primary intent is to create resources to help build the programs that will help people make better choices."
The city had to make painful budget cuts last year and cuts are expected to continue.
"The fact is that it is an identifiable product that is easier to regulate. ... Why not go after soda pop that we know brings no direct nutritional value?" Selkregg said. She compared obesity to the impact of smoking.
To monitor the tax, wholesale beverage sellers would have to be licensed, and the tax would be collected from them, not stores. The tax would apply to carbonated and non-carbonated drinks, including soda, sports drinks, energy drinks, any flavored drinks, diluted fruit and vegetable drinks, and even bottled water. Soft drink products -- such as the syrup delivered to restaurants for soda fountains -- would also be taxed. (The tax on water might be controversial, Selkregg said, and she is willing to consider amending the proposal on that point.)
The only beverages that wouldn't be taxed would be healthy ones, like milk and juices that have more than 70 percent real juice, according to a draft of the proposal Selkregg plans to introduce at Tuesday's Assembly meeting.
Selkregg is still calculating how much money such a tax might raise. She wants the money to go toward fighting obesity in Anchorage, after-school programs, bike paths, or other healthy-living projects or programs.
"An educational campaign would be a preferable way of dealing with issues associated with obesity," said Assembly Chairman Patrick Flynn, who represents downtown Anchorage. He said he is not inclined to support the proposal.
South Anchorage Assemblywoman Jennifer Johnston hadn't read the proposal yet when reached Friday afternoon but said she had doubts. "I'm quite skeptical. I don't think the goals are well thought out," she said.
"If it's adding a tax for the sake of adding a tax, then ... we need to address taxes," Johnston said. Or, she said, "Is she trying to do some social engineering?"
Sullivan stopped short of saying he would veto the tax. He said he wanted to hear the debate first -- but he was dubious the bill would make it that far.
"It's a slippery slope when you start taxing particular commodities that people consume," he said. "At some point are we going to start taxing the volume that people eat?"
He said he doesn't know that Selkregg has the votes to bring it to the point of public debate. But if she does, and the Assembly passed the ordinance, it would take eight of the 11 Assembly members to override Sullivan if he vetoed it.
Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.
By MEGAN HOLLAND