Michigan Senate votes to ban local soda taxes

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Senate on Wednesday voted to prohibit local governments from taxing food, drinks or chewing gum, a pre-emptive strike against local control over so-called “soda taxes” enacted in other parts of the country.

Cook County, Illinois, is one of the latest local governments to slap a tax on the sugary beverage, which supporters say will discourage unhealthy diets, but officials there are now considering repealing the penny-an-ounce tax.

The Michigan Constitution exempts groceries from the state sales tax, and sponsoring Sen. Pete MacGregor said his bill would close “loopholes” he warned could allow local excise taxes on food and drinks.

“We can’t have a patchwork of certain cities and certain counties tax certain items and others don’t,” said MacGregor, R-Rockford. “This will kill these cities’ economy.”

State Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, spoke out against the legislation, arguing it will have “absolutely zero immediate, practical impact” in Michigan.

“Because there’s not a single municipality in our state that is actively doing this,” she said. “What this policy will do is take one more tool out of the tool box of our local units of government.”

Seattle and Philadelphia have enacted similar sin taxes. Voters in San Francisco and two other California municipalities last year approved local taxes on sugary drinks.

Business groups dispute the stated health motivations of soda tax advocates like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has spent millions of dollars to promote and defend the controversial Cook County measure in Illinois.

“While local governments and advocates of these taxes want everyone to believe that they are acting in the interest of public health and safety, the real motivation is to raise revenue to fund more local government growth and bureaucracy and to bail out local budget deficits from years of over-spending,” Charlie Owens, state director of the National Federal of Independent Businesses, said in committee testimony last month.

The bipartisan legislation banning local food taxes sailed through the Senate in a 31-5 vote, with support from all Republicans and six Democrats. It now heads to the state House for additional consideration.

The proposal is supported by Michigan food producers, ranging from the sugar lobby to the vegetable lobby, who say it would eliminate a looming threat to farmers and protect the state economy.

The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network opposes the proposed ban, arguing “economic disincentives” on sugary drinks can help encourage healthy eating and active living.

Roughly 20 percent of all cancers are caused by poor diet, physical inactivity, excess weight and excess alcohol consumption, ACS government relations director Andrew Schepers said in a letter to legislators.

“Healthy eating is key to cancer prevention,” he said. “We are in a public health crisis when it comes to obesity, and our communities need access to all potential tools to ensure Michigan residents live long, healthy, cancer-free lives.”