Barnidge: Voters should be prepared for a lot of taxing issues
By Tom Barnidge Contra Costa Times Columnist
An anti-soda tax billboard is seen at the intersection of Cutting and Carlson Boulevards in Richmond, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 17, 2012. Richmond voters could become the first in the nation to approve a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages when they go to the polls in November. City Councilman Jeff Ritterman is championing the tax. (Jane Tyska/Staff)

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The campaign signs soon will start popping up like crab grass in the spring. Political fliers will fill mailboxes, and political commercials will clutter TV screens. The November ballot is fast approaching, and a lot of people are anxious to persuade you to part with your money.

Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's brainchild, proposes a quarter-cent sales tax hike for four years and higher income tax rates for seven years for anyone earning for than $250,000, ostensibly to meet education expenses. (Surely, he wouldn't use any of this general fund money to pay off high-speed rail bonds.)

Orinda wants residents to approve a half-cent sales tax for 10 years to pay for road repairs, and Moraga wants double that -- a one-cent sales tax for 20 years to upgrade roads and storm drains.

Contra Costa Community College, Contra Costa Fire District and Martinez School District are pushing parcel taxes to cover operating expenses. Knightsen, San Ramon Valley and Antioch school districts are promoting bond issues for capital improvements.

More than a dozen potential money grabs will appear on ballots throughout the county, but none of them generates the same fascination as Richmond's so-called "soda tax" -- one cent per ounce for every sugar-sweetened beverage sold within city limits.

Technically, it isn't a tax. It's a business-license fee. Moreover, it's not being proposed for anything but to discourage something -- the consumption of sugary beverages that contribute to obesity. (The money would go to the city's general fund, where it may or may not be used for health initiatives.)

The measure boils down to this: Residents are being asked to voluntarily increase the amount they pay for soft drinks so they will be less likely to buy them. It's like moving sugar-sweetened beverages to a higher shelf so they're harder to reach.

There's no attempt here to tarnish the good intentions of the act, nor the integrity of the measure's chief supporter, Richmond Councilman Jeff Ritterman. The retired cardiologist lugs around a 40-pound jug of sugar as a graphic reminder of the average intake of a youngster hooked on soft drinks just to make a point.

Excessive sugar intake leads to obesity, he explains, which leads to diabetes and heart disease, which leads to death. The message is profound, but it does make a guy wonder. Why stop there?

Why not tax donuts, Hershey bars and pancake syrup? Why not tax sugar itself? Heck, why not tax red meat, which raises cholesterol, clogs veins and causes heart attacks?

Maybe I should have kept that to myself. It might wind up on the next ballot.

The underlying question here is whether human beings are capable of making intelligent decisions about their health. Many politicians clearly think not. California already bans the sale of soft drinks in grade schools and high schools because it doesn't trust students to control their cravings for the stuff.

It's difficult to argue against a healthful diet, and even harder to quarrel with Ritterman's expertise. But what will be the next menu item politicians will decide to protect us from. Hot fudge sundaes? Funnel cakes? Boston cream pie?

That's what makes Richmond's soda tax the most intriguing of any money measure on the ballot. All the others are designed to meet a payroll, pay for overhead or fund a project.

Richmond's measure is designed to save consumers from themselves.

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