Sugar tax hits the sweet spot for Berkeley residents

Proponents of a soda tax were out in force in neon green at Berkeley City Council. Photo: Lance Knobel
Proponents of a soda tax were out in force when Berkeley City Council first considered the measure last month. Photo: Lance Knobel

Berkeleyans seem eager to enact a new tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, but less likely to support other potential ballot measures being considered by the City Council.

A community survey of just over 500 voters taken last week showed healthy majorities for the so-called soda tax, whether it was for a new general tax or a special tax. In contrast, measures to increase the business license tax for landlords, establish a commercial vacancy tax, increase the parks parcel tax, and issue a pools bond failed to reach majorities or just crossed 50% support. City Council members said that support for measures often declines from levels indicated in community surveys. 

“The sugar tax hit the sweet spot,” said Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, who is on the community committee pushing for the tax. “For me, it’s disappointing that the parks question in particular fared so poorly.”

Four of the questions on the survey focused on the sugar-sweetened drinks tax, which is expected to face a well-funded opposition from the beverages industry. When respondents were asked whether they would support a one cent per ounce tax going to the general fund, 66% said yes. Asked about a special tax, with revenues dedicated to health and nutrition programs, 64% said yes. A general tax requires a simple majority vote, while a special tax requires two-thirds support.


Raising the tax to two cents per ounce reduced support to 55% for the general tax and 59% for the special tax. Reading respondents arguments for and against before posing the question produced very little change in the results.

A similar ballot measure is likely in San Francisco this November. San Francisco supporters are planning to focus on a special tax, despite the two-thirds hurdle. The measures on both sides of the Bay are likely to attract a particular barrage of opposition from the beverages industry.

“Both of us having it on the ballot will work against us,” admitted Capitelli. He said the well-funded opponents will buy regional media.

In contrast, raising the parks parcel tax by 10% ($29 per year for an average 1,900 sq. ft. house) attracted only 54% support. A parcel tax measure requires two-thirds support to pass. A proposal for a $25 million bond issue for pools and parks, including reopening Willard Pool, was supported by only 52%. For the measure to pass, it would need two-thirds majority in favor.

Survey respondents were also asked some general questions about Berkeley. 63% said “things in the city of Berkeley are going in the right direction.” Only 13% said “things are on the wrong track” (24% responded “don’t know”).


When asked to rate the job Berkeley is doing providing city services, 14% responded excellent, 55% responded good. Slightly less than a quarter, 23%, said fair and 5% said poor.

When asked about areas where Berkeley might need to invest, 31% said providing affordable housing was extremely important, and 31% rated improving children’s health as extremely important. Only 7% said renovating swimming pools or improving parks and playgrounds was extremely important.

46% of the respondents were men and 54% were women. 67% of respondents were white and 10% were black. 39% were over 60 and 20% were under 30. All respondents were required to be likely voters in the November 2014 election.

Correction: An earlier version of the story said eight of the questions concerned the soda tax. In fact, different respondents were given different questions for some parts of the survey. So any single respondent only received four of the questions on the soda tax. 

Related stories:
Willard pool reopening on agenda for park bond measure (02.13.14)
Will Berkeley be the first in the nation to impose soda tax? (02.12.14)
Willard Pool supporters turn out for parks meeting (10.17.13)
Berkeley Tuolumne Camp supporters push to rebuild (10.16.13)
Commission, public discuss priorities for Berkeley’s parks (10.04.13)
4 public meetings planned on future of Berkeley parks (09.05.13)


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