DENVER - For libertarians, it is a step toward social engineering.
But to Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, a proposal to tax candy and soda pop in the state is nothing more than a way to help
close a widening budget gap.
Regardless of the motivation, if Ritter's idea is adopted next year by the legislature, Colorado would become one of a
growing number of states and localities going after candy bars and soft drinks.
And, like cigarettes and liquor before them, sweet treats would achieve a special status as items whose consumption is
discouraged by the very governments that become dependent on the revenue they provide.
Ritter's office estimates that eliminating the sales tax exemption for candy and soft drinks would generate $17.9
million and help avoid deeper cuts to schools and colleges.
We thought that people would be willing to pay three cents on a dollar candy bar," said Ritter, who once spent three
years running a nutrition center in Zambia before resuming his law career. We just viewed (allowing the sales tax) as
something that doesn't do anything to our (state's) competitiveness."
Illinois recently subjected candy and soft drinks to sales tax, San Francisco is considering a soda tax, and candy and
soda tax proposals have been floated this year in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
Even President Barack Obama said recently he was interested in the idea of taxing soda, saying kids were drinking too
much of it.
Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment has produced a 154-page Colorado Physical Activity and Nutrition
Program plan for 2010 which, among other things, advocates that businesses create a healthier environment by not
setting out trays or bowls of candy.
And groups like LiveWell Colorado, which promotes healthier eating and lifestyles, applaud Ritter's idea to tax the
foods as well.
We support policies that limit the consumption of unhealthy food," said Maren Stewart, president and chief executive
of the group. The governor's proposal to eliminate the sales tax exemption for candy and soda will not exclusively
solve the problem of obesity, because it's a very complex and complicated problem.
We are hopeful, however, that (eliminating) the exemption could lead to healthier choices."
Some critics argue that taxes on junk food and soft drinks are regressive, and New York Gov. David Paterson this year
abandoned a proposal to impose an 18 percent tax on soft drinks after complaints it would hit the poor hardest.
Polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation this year has shown only narrow majority support for taxing junk food and
soft drinks, usually hovering in the low to mid-50 percent ranges for both ideas.
Organizations that decry what they see as government nannyism are less enthusiastic.
Not only has Ritter already hacked off taxpayers in Colorado, he's now going to hack off children as well," said Jon
Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a Golden-based libertarian think tank.
I think the governor needs to sit down and watch Willy Wonka a couple of times and stop being such a buzzkill."
The so-called candy tax" was among 13 tax credits and exemptions Ritter proposed repealing to generate $131.8 million
to help balance the 2010-2011 state budget, which is facing a $1 billion shortfall.
A legal opinion last year said that while lawmakers cannot raise taxes without voter approval, they can eliminate tax
exemptions and tax credits without asking Coloradans, as long as the new revenue generated doesn't exceed limits under
the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights in the state constitution. Critics say doing so still would violate TABOR, but the matter
hasn't been put to a court yet.
Since 1980, the state has not imposed a sales tax on food purchased for home consumption, with a few exceptions that
include vending machine beverages, chewing gum and certain deli items.
Ritter proposes that the state's 2.9 percent sales tax be levied on all sales of candy and soft drinks, not just
According to Ritter's office, at least 16 states tax candy along with all food, while 14 exempt all food except
A 2006 report from the Grocery Manufacturers Association said 20 other states imposed either a sales tax or special tax
on soft drinks and/or candy.
Ritter officials say the fact that other states have been doing it shows such a tax could be workable in Colorado
despite industry concerns it would be unwieldy.