Yes to Soda Tax; NO To Arts Tax

Posted by | July 08, 2017 | 1 Issue to Engage | No Comments


It’s important to compare these two measures, because they say a lot about how local officials try to implement programs with your tax dollars. Leadership matters.

We have studied both proposals and offer our opinions here. In short, we think the Soda Tax is a good idea and the Arts Tax is a bad idea. But we also provide some principles and helpful links for you to decide on your own.

Note: The Arts Tax is on the August 1, 2017 ballot.  The Soda Tax will appear on the November ballot only if the Soda lobbyists challenge the recently approved city ordinance by forcing a referendum.

For all of us concerned about the rise in property taxes displacing longtime residents and senior citizens, the Soda Tax (which taxes certain sugary beverages) is a smart, surgically focused alternative to yet another property tax levy. The Soda Tax will simultaneously encourage healthier habits while raising funds for programs proven to help kids such as Nurse Family Partnership.

On the other hand, the Arts Tax is ill-conceived and low priority. At a time when homelessness is on the rise and leaders are failing to adequately fund basic reading and math, the Arts Tax lacks clear goals and tangible outcomes. Because it will raise the sales tax, the Arts Tax will be regressive no matter what – the poor would pay a larger proportion of their income no matter what they buy.

Principles to consider when voting on any ballot measure:

  1. PRIORITY? Is the proposal addressing a need that is urgent?
  2. EVIDENCE-BASED? Is the proposal backed by scientific evidence and/or proven to work in other cities?
  3. WELL-CRAFTED and ACCOUNTABLE? Is the proposal effectively designed to achieve specific OUTCOMES (e.g. graduation rates) and to allow voters and independent experts to track results?
  4. ENDORSED BY INDEPENDENTS? Who is pushing the proposal — independent voices or only groups that will benefit from it?
  5. SMART FUNDING? Can we AFFORD the proposal? Is it COST-EFFECTIVE? Are the funding sources (taxes or fees) FAIR or are they regressive (i.e. the poor pay more)?

ARTS, SCIENCE, and HERITAGE TAX (a.k.a. Ordinance 18513, “Access for All,” King County Proposition 1, or “Arts Tax”) To read it, CLICK HERE.

Housing the homeless and expanding early childhood education are more of a priority now.  Just because it pulls on your heart strings, does not mean you should tax everyone in King County.

When vulnerable populations are asked what they need most to survive and thrive, is the answer greater access to arts programs? Also, if funding these programs for our public schools is so important, why does the proposed Arts Tax set aside only 10% for schools? [See Section 7(C)(1)]

We agree with King County Councilmembers Dave Upthegrove and Larry Gossett who voted against the Arts Tax because we need to deploy the County’s scarce resources to focus on more pressing problems such as homelessness. For a similar view from the Seattle Times, CLICK HERE.

The Statement of “Facts” at the beginning of the Arts Tax merely proclaims that “King County residents would greatly benefit” from “meaningful opportunities.”

What evidence is there that the proposed program will lead to “healthier, more inclusive communities” and “higher graduation rates” other than the words printed on the paper? Even the statements about helping the organizations are suspect, such as “would ensure that arts, science and heritage organizations are financially healthy.” How so?

Good intentions do not ensure good results. And, if we really care about the results, King County leaders should go back to the drawing board and design an evidence-based strategy to achieve specific outcomes.

Lacks Outcomes: Section 4 of the Arts Tax lists as its “discernable public benefits” only vague inputs such as “Providing performances and programs” and “Supporting collaborative relationships with other cultural organizations.”  Rather than counting the number of free tickets provided and performances attended, how will beneficial outcomes be demonstrated over time among the children and other vulnerable populations?

Poorly Written: The proposed ordinance is poorly written with undefined terms (“culture” and “demographics”), loopholes (for-profits can be funded), and unenforceable provisions  (Example:  “Organizations…should reflect the demographics of King County in their staffs, board, memberships, audiences and programs”:  Does this mean downtown Seattle arts organizations need to be staffed by the growing hoard of wealthy “brogrammers”?)

Good Use of Existing System: One positive of the Arts Tax is that it does not reinvent the wheel and create a new expensive bureaucracy that can siphon off the tax dollars over time, but rather uses the already established infrastructure of King County’s “4Culture” department.

Weak Oversight:  The Arts Tax establishes a “4Culture advisory committee” but does not specify what it is measuring. Even its composition is muddled with a poorly worded description:  “The size and operation of the advisory council shall be defined, and at least nine members of this committee must be recommended one each by each of the nine county councilmembers and confirmed by the King County council.”  Huh?

While there are many fantastic organizations supporting the Arts Tax, most of these major endorsers are also groups that will benefit from it. These include big institutions that don’t need the money but will receive much of the money, such as the Zoo.

King County Executive Dow Constantine, who is pushing the Arts Tax, has his eye on higher office. The cynical view of the Arts Tax is that Constantine is using it to “prime the pump” of wealthy donors for his run for Governor in 2020.

Regressive: At over 10%, Seattle’s sales tax is already among the highest in the nation. And sales tax is regressive: the poor pay a larger proportion of their income for anything they buy. The Arts Tax would, unfortunately, increase the sales tax.

Can Rob Peter to Pay Paul:  The Arts Tax will allow General Fund dollars currently supporting the arts, heritage, and science programs to go away — supplanted by the proposed tax. This is a classic budgetary shell game whereby net funding for arts, heritage, and science might not even increase.

Spreading Peanut Butter: Rather than focusing the investment on programs proven to work, the Arts Tax proposes a scatter-shot approach — spreading the “peanut butter” thinly and ineffectively over “hundreds” of organizations. Moreover, the Arts Tax would “use seed money to establish new cultural organizations”  — without any criteria as to their need, purpose, or effectiveness.

After dying in Committee (where bad ideas should die), the Arts Tax mysteriously came back to life. For Seattle Times coverage, CLICK HERE. It is very frustrating that the County Executive puts us in the position to “vote No on the arts,” but voting No on this Arts Tax is the right thing to do.

The good news is that solutions already exist:

  • the Zoo, aquarium, museums, science center, and other venues can already provide free admission.
  • Metro buses and Sound Transit can already provide free transportation.
  • King County’s “4Culture” department should already be focusing on equity outcomes and increased access. They don’t need to increase sales taxes to achieve this.


SODA TAX (a.k.a. “Sweetened Beverage Tax,” Ordinance 125324, and Section 5.53 of the Seattle Municipal Code) To read it, CLICK HERE.

Low-income residents need help buying healthy food and the youngest children need high-quality education as their brains are developing.

2. EVIDENCE-BASED? Yes and No.
The Soda Tax is not perfect:  while the Birth to 5 programs are all evidence-based (proven to produce positive, measurable outcomes), the food access programs and some of the other education programs are lacking.

While the food access programs are not (yet) evidence-based, the evils of sugary drinks are.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC)“Frequently drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with weight gain/obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic liver disease, tooth decay and cavities, and gout, a type of arthritis.”  Therefore, by discouraging consumption of sugary beverages, the Soda Tax could immediately improve health for many residents.

It would be prudent for the City to spend most of the initial dollars on the proven early learning programs while it studies how best to implement the food programs.

For evidence that Nurse Family Partnership produces positive outcomes (including crime reduction!), CLICK HERE and HERE and HERE. For evidence that high-quality preschool programs like the Seattle Preschool Program produce positive outcomes (including higher graduation rates), CLICK HERE and HERE and HERE.

Throwing in the Kitchen Sink:  We believe ALL of the funding from the Soda Tax should go toward evidence-based, early learning programs. That would produce the most positive long-term impacts for the city. But as the dietary evils of sugary sodas were discussed, the proposal naturally emphasized access to healthy foods. Then subsidies for the first year of college were tossed in. This is mishmash was apparently necessary to gain the support of City Councilmembers whose priorities are clearly unclear.

Oversight: While more specific and organized than the vague oversight for the Arts Tax, the Soda Tax’s ongoing oversight has shortcomings. It creates a “Sweetened Beverage Tax Community Advisory Board”. (Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?)  But why is the Office of Sustainability and Environment (a.k.a. the Mike McGinn and Mike O’Brien Department) the lead agency? To create sustainability for itself? And why are there so few education-related experts on the 11-member board?

Evaluation: Fortunately, there is a saving grace for accountability: the Soda Tax requires an annual independent evaluation completed by academic experts and overseen by the City Auditor.

Health and education experts support the Soda Tax, including the Washington Academy of Family Physicians which would receive no funding from the measure. City Councilmember Tim Burgess, a leader on the Soda Tax, is a retiring statesman and is well known for his commitment to evidence-based policy.

The early learning programs are already proven to be cost-effective, but it’s not clear whether the food access programs will be.

The good news is that, unlike the all-encompassing Arts Tax, the Soda Tax is essentially a user fee; it will tax only those who choose to buy the sugary products.

People seem obsessed with the tax itself because it’s a shiny new object. But at least the Soda Tax is not another property tax.  It’s more appropriate to focus on what the funding will do, rather than the novelty of the funding source.

Critics say the Soda Tax is regressive, but that’s valid only if you accept that it’s okay to drink sugary sodas. It’s not okay. The Soda Tax will discourage Seattle residents from buying something that is horrible for their health.  We agree this seems like a top-down, “Nanny State” approach, but it’s the same with taxing cigarettes. We cannot articulate it better than the 10-year old girl who attended the public hearing in June and said, “I can’t think of a better way to raise that money than a tax on something that has absolutely no nutritional value.”

CONCLUSION: It’s healthy to be FOR some measures and AGAINST some measures. We know some neighbors who see a tax and always vote NO because they distrust the government’s ability to spend their money wisely or they are feeling the pinch of ever-rising taxes. We also know neighbors who lead with their big hearts and want to help others on all fronts. But it’s okay to vote Yes on some and No on others. Consider the principles above and do what you think is best.

The Arts Tax vote is August 1.

  • For campaign website in favor of the Arts Tax, CLICK HERE.
  • For the official statement against the Arts Tax (Proposition 1), CLICK HERE.

The Soda Tax vote is likely November 7 if soda lobbyists force a Referendum to have voters reconsider the ordinance passed by City Council.

  • For campaign website in favor of the Soda Tax, CLICK HERE. For how Berkeley, California beat “Big Soda,” CLICK HERE.
  • For a website against Soda Tax, CLICK HERE.
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