Connecticut governor pitches statewide soda tax

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) wants his state to become the first to levy an extra tax on sugary drinks and sodas.

In a budget proposal rolled out Wednesday, Lamont asked legislators to impose a new 1.5 cents per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. The tax would generate about $163 million in new revenue for the next fiscal year, Lamont's office estimated.

The money is part of a package of new revenue-raisers aimed at closing Connecticut's $2 billion budget deficit. Lamont also proposed new taxes on electronic cigarette liquids, a 10-cent surcharge on plastic bags and new deposits on wine and liquor bottles.

The proposal to tax sugary beverages is not new — about a dozen other countries levy taxes on drinks with added sugar. And some American cities, mostly liberal enclaves, have implemented similar taxes, including Berkeley, Calif.; San Francisco, Seattle and Philadelphia.

But some of those cities have experienced significant political blowback when they implemented the new tax, hinting that Lamont's plan may cross into treacherous political territory.

Cook County, Ill., passed a 1 cent-per-ounce soda tax in 2016, after a group backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg funded a campaign supporting the tax. But the public outcry was so loud that the county commission repealed the tax almost unanimously less than a year later.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney took heat, too, for a soda tax passed in 2016. Several soda manufacturers and retailers claimed they laid off dozens of workers, citing the tax's impact, though it remains in effect after the state Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality last year.

In Connecticut, the fight may become just as fierce.

"Similar taxes on sugary drinks in Philadelphia, Boulder and Seattle have failed to raise significant revenue and have hurt local business," said Chris Taylor, a Connecticut resident and chief operating officer of Boylan Bottling Co., a craft soda maker based in New York City. "It's troubling that our governor and the Democrats in Hartford are willing to target one specific line of business rather than focusing on renegotiating bad deals with in-state unions."

Perhaps in a nod to the political risk Lamont is taking, the governor did not mention the proposed tax in his budget address to lawmakers on Wednesday.

Connecticut won't be the only front in the war between soda manufacturers and those who back taxes on sugary drinks. The California Dental Association and the California Medical Association are collecting signatures for an initiative that would appear on the 2020 ballot, and the state legislature is debating its own taxes on sugary drinks.

Updated at 4:51 p.m.