Legal Battle over Wording of Soda Tax Ballot Measure in Berkeley

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Proponents of a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on soda pop proposal set to go before voters in Berkeley this fall are fighting a challenge from opponents who say the language used in the initiative is “false, misleading, and illegally biased.”

A suit (pdf) was filed last week by two men, at least one of whom has ties to the No Berkeley Beverage Tax campaign, which receives funding from the American Beverage Association. It claims that the city substituted the phrase “high-calorie, sugary drinks” for “sugar-sweetened beverage” in the ballot language of Measure D. The plaintiffs, Anthony Johnson and Leon Cain, would prefer the phrase “sugar-sweetened beverage products” to be used.

Initiative backer Josh Daniels blasted the efforts of the beverage industry to hurt the measure. “They continue to try to use their money to push around voters,” Daniels told Emile Raguso of Berkeleyside. “They’ll do anything to try to win. And they don’t really want to try to discuss their product as a contributor to diabetes, or their marketing to kids. They want to try to distract us by changing topics.”

But the suit called the current wording “false, misleading, and illegally biased.” Johnson said “under this definition, a 12-ounce canned drink containing a mere 24 calories would be covered by the City’s proposed tax,” according to Courthouse News Service. “A reasonable voter would not consider a 12-ounce drink containing only 24 calories to be ‘high calorie’ or ‘sugary.’ ’’

The suit also says the city attorney’s analysis of the initiative in the voters’ guides uses the same language as the ballot and should be changed as well. The actual law calls the drinks “sugar-sweetened beverages.”

The soda tax is not the only measure whose ballot description is being challenged in court. Berkeley City Councilman Jesse Arreguín filed a lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court Wednesday, asking for a rewrite of Measure R, a downtown zoning initiative over building heights. The suit describes the ballot wording as “full of misstatements, negative characterizations, and highlighting of relatively minor features while omitting mentions of features with more significant reach or impacts which create an unlawful bias against the Initiative which must be corrected.”    

–Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Lawsuit Filed Over Berkeley ‘Soda Tax’ Ballot (by Emile Raguso, Berkeyside)

Voters Fight Language of Berkeley Soda Tax (by Elizabeth Warmerdam, Courthouse News Service)

Berkeley Zoning Ballot Language Heading To Court (by Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside)

California’s Sugar High Costs It Hundreds of Millions for Healthcare (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Soda Industry Drowns Richmond Tax Foes in Dollars (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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