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D.C. Council appears to take proposed soda tax off the table

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; B01

A majority of D.C. Council members signaled their opposition Thursday to a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on soda, probably killing the proposal for the year.

The council's decision followed several weeks of intense lobbying that pitted grocers and the beverage industry against nutrition advocates, including actor Morgan Freeman, who made a last-minute pitch in support of the bill.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) had pushed for a tax on sugary soda as a way of combating childhood obesity and funding an initiative to provide healthier meals to students in city schools. The tax would not have applied to diet soft drinks.

But about 3 p.m. Thursday, council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) announced during council budget talks that the soda tax would not be included in the fiscal 2011 budget because it lacked support. Gray said members will search for savings in the budget to fund the Healthy Schools initiative, which has an estimated $6 million annual price tag.

"I'm deeply disappointed," Cheh said. "We had a good policy choice on the table."

Council members, racing to complete the budget in time for a vote Wednesday, also appeared to rule out higher taxes on the wealthy as a way to help close a budget gap. In addition, the council signaled that it will probably reject a proposal by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to raise parking meter rates. Instead, the council is considering a proposal to make city employees take a furlough day to save money.

The demise of the soda tax is a major boost for the beverage industry as it battles similar proposals in several cities, including Baltimore.

In the District, The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association teamed with restaurants and grocers to mount an expensive campaign to derail Cheh's bill. Called No D.C. Beverage Tax, the coalition ran radio and newspaper ads and made robo-calls contending that the tax would hurt "working families." The coalition, which said the tax would add $1.44 to the cost of a 12-pack, also placed table-top ads at some restaurants urging patrons to call council members to voice their opposition.

Nutrition advocates teamed up last week to mount their own advertising and lobbying campaign. They enlisted Freeman, who called council members Wednesday to ask for their support.

"He just called all the members and said he thinks the bill is fine and it is needed to fight obesity," said council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).

But Thomas joined council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) in launching a ferocious assault on the proposal during the budget negotiations.

Thomas, armed with bottles of Gatorade, said during the budget debate that the proposal was too confusing because it would also apply to some sports drinks and protein shakes.

"This is a 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade," said Thomas, a youth sports coach. "So if I take this 20-ounce bottle and the tax applies, that means each one is 20 cents more . . . for something I want my kids to have after a game."

Other members countered that it would reduce sugar consumption and help reduce the city's high childhood obesity rate.

"We know a huge portion of young people are not going to live as long as the people around this table because they are growing up far more obese," said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

Despite the lack of a funding source, Gray insisted that the council will find money for the Healthy Schools bill so it can go into effect by the start of the 2010-11 school year.

The legislation, approved unanimously by the council two weeks ago, requires city public and charter schools to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables, offer free breakfast in the classroom and add thousands of children to the city's free-lunch program.

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