As befits California, the city and county of San Francisco (the same political entity) has 24 candidates, six state measures, and 12 local initiatives on the ballot this November. One of the most heavily funded -- also as befits California -- is Proposition E, a proposed "Tax on Sugar-Sweetened Beverages." It's a fight that's not shaping up to be much of a fight, and therefore provides a nicely packaged look at how politics in California can work.
The San Francisco Bay Guardian reports that the campaign to defeat the measure has raised $7.7 million through September. That's $5 million more than was spent to beat a similar measure, which lost by a two-to-one margin, in across-the-bay Richmond in 2012.
Measure E would levy a tax of two cents per ounce for most beverages sweetened with extra sugar. Remember all of those jokes about what Michael Bloomberg wanted to do with sodas in New York? Bloomberg wanted to limit soda consumption by capping the amount you could buy. Advocates of the San Francisco proposal hope to do so by making it more expensive. (The website backing the initiative is explicit that this is a goal. "San Francisco’s proposed soda tax will reduce soda consumption and fund active recreation" its homepage begins.)
It probably won't take long for you to figure out who opposes the initiative. The $7.7 million all comes from one group, the American Beverage Association California PAC. And the state's filing website reveals the contributors to that PAC: Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper have all given $2 million plus. (See at right.)
The opposition's website points out the cost of the proposed tax. Two cents per ounce is 40 more cents for a 20-ounce soda, or "nearly $3.00 to the cost of a 12-pack!" While the tax would be paid by distributors, the general expectation is that the cost would be passed on to consumers.
Right now, a 20-ounce Coke at a 7/11 in the Sunset District costs $2.11 -- according to the very nice proprietor of a 7/11 in the Sunset District who answered the phone when we called. If E passes, that cost will likely rise to $2.50. Opponents of the tax point out that the effects of the tax would be regressive, disproportionately affecting poorer San Franciscans (who, like the rest of the country, spend more of their incomes on food). Of course, reduced sales would also cut into the profits of the people paying for the opposition. If you assume that a fifth of the cost of a bottle of soda is profit for the company or the distributor (Coke's net profit margin overall is 18 percent), the companies are investing the profits from over 18 million 7/11 20-ounces in order to keep the status quo.
The Guardian notes that the 'No on E' camp has been running ads like the one below to advocate a "no" vote on the measure. (Their side has an easier job. The measure requires a two-thirds majority to pass, and a May poll showed that only 54 percent of people supported the idea.)
Notice the little crawl at the bottom, listing the names of various clubs, mostly Democratic ones, that oppose Prop E. The Democratic Central Committee in San Francisco supports the measure. So why do the Chinese American Democratic Club, San Francisco Young Democrats, and Asian Pacific Democratic Club oppose the measure?
Perhaps in part because No on E paid those groups $5,000, $21,500, and $2,500 for inclusion on slate mailers sent to voters, according to the campaign's filing. (Slate mailers are those "here are all of our endorsements" things that you get shortly before election day, meant for you to take to the polls. Sometimes they're from the Democratic or Republican parties. Sometimes they're from interest groups, or organizations that sound like interest groups.) Party clubs are common in California and can confuse voters looking for the official party endorsement. Sometimes that's intentional. Slate mailers often do the same thing. For example, Women for Common Sense Government, also listed on that ad, may very well oppose Prop E on the merits. But the group also received $2,500 toward its slate mailer. That money will help pay for some subset of San Francisco voters to get a piece of mail that, perhaps among other things, explains why common sense women oppose Prop E. Win-win.
Often, campaigns will buy room on slate mailers simply to keep their less well-known opponents from getting the "endorsement" of these well-named groups. In the case of 'No on E', however, it appears to be just part of its comprehensive and not inexpensive push to keep soda prices 24 to 40 cents lower. The campaign is pulling all of the proper levers for electoral success in California. If E goes down, they'll certainly consider it money well spent.