Marbella: No one drinks for free

Like schoolkids who had pulled the fire alarm to get outside on a nice day, the City Council members gathered in front of City Hall on Thursday afternoon were laughing and joking a bit nervously, even conspiratorially, among themselves.

Which is why when I heard what they were up to, my first thought was, "Does the mayor know you're doing this?"

That's the nature of Baltimore's government — like the teacher in a classroom, the mayor pretty much has all the real power, and the council members, like students, basically have only the power of disruption. They can call for things, hearings and investigations and such, but unless they band together, they don't have much leverage against the wishes of the mayor.

So it's too bad this rare councilmanic uprising came over her proposed bottle tax, which, if not a perfect solution, would provide a reliable source of much-needed revenue for a city facing a $120 million budget shortfall.

Eight council members held the al fresco (or was it al Fresca?) news conference Thursday to announce they'd found other ways to raise revenue and thus could put a cork on the bottle tax Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake has been pushing.

Thursday apparently was a good day to buy the world a Coke — city councils in Washington and Philadelphia, in perfect harmony, were busy similarly putting a lid on their own proposals to tax sodas and other sugary drinks.

If you turned on a radio in any of the cities, you might have a clue as to why the councils took a pass on the taxes — grocers, bottlers, distributors and other industry groups have waged an aggressive ad campaign defending our inalienable right to guzzle gallons of nutritionally indefensible drinks with abandon but without taxation.

With the ads' grave tone and spooky background music, I was ready to head for the bunker and wait for Rawlings-Blake herself to pry my Pepsi Cherry Vanilla out of my cold dead fingers.

The pushback seemed a little over the top given that the measure would add a mere 4 cents a bottle, and exempts the big, 2-liter containers, as well as milk and juice.

I know: 4 cents here and 4 cents there, and suddenly you're talking real money. Too bad. Someone show me where you have the right to down all the high-fructose corn syrup-laden drinks you want, and to pump it into your kids as well — as cheaply as possible. Not when study after study has shown that these drinks contribute to the country's rising obesity rate, especially among children, that all of us pay for in health care costs.

If anything, I don't think Rawlings-Blake's measure went far enough — health groups generally call for a penny-per-ounce levy on such drinks. And, according to a recent RAND Corp. study, taxes on sodas and similar beverages in other places mostly have been too small to significantly reduce consumption or weight gain among children. Interestingly, though, the study found that higher sales taxes on soda did have that effect on one group: children who already were at a higher risk for obesity, such as those from low-income families.

In any event, Rawlings-Blake's measure was designed not so much for personal as fiscal health — she says she'd have to make drastic cuts to police and other critical services unless she can generate some new revenue streams. It probably wouldn't have mattered in the face of the beverage industry's full-throated opposition, but she probably should have lined up whatever support is out there — environmentalists, health advocates — to tax these containers and perhaps lessen their prevalence, or at least make some more money off them. Instead, the debate was largely set by the beverage lobby.

Now we have alternatives from various council members on the table, but already the Rawlings-Blake administration has said one of them, an excise tax on video poker machines, would bring in less than half the revenue that its sponsor projected. So maybe the bottle tax isn't quite dead in Baltimore, particularly if it's held up as a way of avoiding big public safety cutbacks.

Which would give us a unique twist on the guns-or-butter question: or, I guess in this case, a cops-or-cola one.

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