If San Franciscans ever vote to tax soda and other sugary beverages, we will have Michael Bloomberg to thank. The billionaire media mogul and former New York City mayor gave $150,000 on April 15 to support a campaign dubbed “San Franciscans United to Reduce Diabetes in Children by Imposing a 1 Cent Per Ounce Tax on the Distribution of Sugary Drinks,” public records show.
Despite the clunky name, smooth East Bay political consultant Larry Tramutola is leading the campaign after running the successful campaign to pass Berkeley's first-in-the-nation sugary-drinks tax in 2014. Bloomberg donated $657,000 to that cause, as well.
Yet that same year, the billionaire political independent — who mulled over but decided against running for president — held off on contributing to a similar ballot measure in San Francisco, which would have been the biggest city by far to slap a tax on sugary drinks.
Instead, health-conscious soda taxers drowned in a spending bonanza that saw Big Soda drop $7 million to defeat the measure. But for such a huge investment, the American Beverage Association's victory fell a bit flat. Fifty-five percent of voters actually supported the tax, but since the measure was worded as a tax increase where the money went to specific causes, it required a two-thirds majority to pass.
This time, backers have tweaked the language so that the tax money simply goes into the general city coffers — and ergo requires only a simple majority to pass. That may be what compelled Bloomberg to support a campaign he ignored last time around.
“I think this time around there was a thinking on their part that this effort in San Francisco could be successful,” Tramutola says.
The 2014 tax, Proposition E, was mostly funded by lobbying groups for hospitals, doctors, and dentists — along with Lisa and John Pritzker, a billionaire couple with ties to the Hyatt hotels fortune who have roots in San Francisco.
Soda appears to be Bloomberg's pet issue. He unsuccessfully fought to ban sales of large sodas while mayor of New York City (but also angered lefties for supporting regressive policing methods like stop-and-frisk).
So far Bloomberg has contributed the majority of funds to the campaign, with tech CEO Benjamin Lilienthal and a political group in Texas each chipping in $10,000.
Tramutola says that he expects the same public-health groups to support the campaign. He is also optimstic that Bloomberg will continue donating.
“I'm hopeful we'll be able to get enough to be competitive here, but we're not there yet,” Tramutola says.
As of press time, the measure's opponents, the American Beverage Association California PAC, have raised upwards of half a million dollars, and more is sure to come. When facing down Big Soda, there's no doubt that local soda-tax supporters will gulp down all the funding they can find.