RICHMOND -- In common parlance, it's the "soda tax," two words sure to elicit passionate opposition or support.
But it's much more complicated, and the powerful coalition aligned to defeat the city's hotly debated ballot measure thinks it has found an opening to exploit.
Far from taxing only soda, the proposed ordinance's language would apply to nearly 800 brands of products, ranging from infant formulas to health supplement drinks marketed to seniors, and would raise prices on all groceries as merchants try to spread the new costs across their inventories, opponents say.
Supporters of the tax call the strategy a red herring, the latest ploy by a well-funded political alliance determined to stop Richmond from becoming the first city in the nation to tax sugar-sweetened beverages. They promise to craft new language into the ordinance exempting infant formulas and nutritional supplements for the elderly.
While Richmond has grabbed national headlines over its effort to levy a penny-per-ounce tax on businesses that sell sugar-sweetened beverages, details of the ballot measure that voters will decide in November remain murky to most.
According to the measure passed by the council in May, the tax, called Measure N, would apply to any liquids containing "caloric sweetener," defined as "any caloric substance suitable for human consumption that humans perceive as sweet and includes, without limitation, sucrose, fructose, glucose, other
According to the measure's wording, "caloric" means a substance that adds calories "to the diet of a person who consumes that substance."
The tax would be collected from merchants, who are expected to use inventory records to calculate how many ounces of taxable beverages they have sold annually, paying a penny per ounce. If passed, the tax could generate about $3 million, which proponents say will be used to fund anti-obesity and recreation programs.
It's the broad definition that has drawn the focus of anti-tax groups funded by the Washington D.C.-based American Beverage Association.
"By taxing local business indiscriminately on the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages, Measure N would raise the grocery bills of Richmond families, whether they drink soda or not, and would hurt local businesses," said Chuck Finnie of Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst, Lauter and Partners, the San Francisco-based public relations firm hired with ABA funds to wage the "No on N" campaign.
In El Monte, a Los Angeles County suburb where a nearly identical sugar-sweetened beverage tax is on the ballot, there is a key difference.
"'Sugar sweetened beverage'" shall not include nutritional supplement drinks or rehydration beverages for children and/or seniors," the council-approved measure reads, "... including but not limited to Pedialyte, Ensure, Lucerne, Pediasure."
In Richmond, no exceptions were codified in the ballot measure the council approved in May. Opponents pounced, and in a series of online, radio and television debates, Councilman Jeff Ritterman, a retired cardiologist and the tax's top proponent, found himself fending off questions about why he wants to tax baby formulas and nutritional shakes for the elderly.
"This is a distraction," Ritterman said. "It's a strategy that Big Soda is using to get as many people upset as possible. Baby formula and Ensure (nutritional shakes) were never intended to be taxed, and now we're working on a document to make that clear."
Opponents of the tax scoff at Ritterman's assurances.
"Ritterman can't have it both ways," said Felix Hunziker, a resident and vocal opponent of the tax. "This tax is extraordinarily broad, and residents deserve the facts before they cast their ballots."
Rafael Madrigal, president of the 23rd Street Merchants Association, said the mostly Latino-owned restaurants and taquerias he represents are against Measure N.
"People are confused," Madrigal said. "They aren't clear on what would be taxed or how it would be collected."
Now that Ritterman has promised clarifying language on what would be exempted from the tax, critics howl that further modifications to the ballot measure may not be legal without new council approval.
But Richmond's city attorney, Bruce Goodmiller, said Tuesday that Finance Director Jim Goines has discretion in enforcing the tax in a way that "reflects the intent of the proponents of the ordinance."
"There is a request from the proponent of the sugar-sweetened beverage ordinance that the finance director consider issuance of an enforcement policy for Measure N on the November ballot," Goodmiller wrote in an email. "The purpose of the requested enforcement policy would be to clarify the application of the ordinance."
Finnie disagreed and questioned the legality of modifying the tax, calling Measure N poorly crafted and "flawed" and demonstrative of "Ritterman's confusion about how the electoral process works in California or the lengths he will go to confuse voters about Measure N."
With beverage industry funding flowing into Richmond, observers expect the anti-N campaign to outspend the pro-N side by more than 50 to 1. The vote is Nov. 6.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.