Anytime now, you should expect an invasion by “the most sought-after Guns for Hire,” flooding the Statehouse hallways and your TV screens with an all-out barrage of
propaganda issue advocacy.
The approaching marauders hale from a D.C. PR firm with the faintly unbelievable name “Goddard Gunster.” On its home page it proudly boasts of being “the most sought-after Guns for Hire,” as Business Week once called them.
GG will work for anyone who can pay its exorbitant bills, but a frequent customer is the American Beverage Association and its fellow peddlers of sugary drinks. They’ve turned to GG whenever a beverage tax or bottle bill or ban on SuperSizing rears its ugly head — from San Francisco to Telluride to New York City to Massachusetts.
And now, after an unsuccessful effort in 2013, we’re about to see another drive for a sugared-beverage tax* in Vermont. Which means, sure as the sun comes up in the east, Goddard Gunster will be ridin’ into town, guns a-blazin’.
*Popularly called “soda tax,” but would apply to any beverage with added sugar.
In 2013, an SBT bill won approval in the House Health Care Committee, which saw it more as a public health measure than a revenue enhancer; but it failed on a 6-5 vote in the Ways and Means Committee. During the three months between the bill’s introduction and its death, Big Sugar and its retail allies spent more than $600,000 fighting the bill. That’s an astounding figure in Vermont terms.
If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe black-hat lobbyist Andrew McLean, who spearheaded Big Sugar’s anti-tax efforts under the Golden Dome:
MacLean concedes his clients spent “a lot of money” on a “very aggressive campaign” to halt the tax.
“I have not been involved in a campaign that’s that expensive,” he says.
This, from a guy who reps many of the biggest business and industry clients in Vermont.
And it’s sure to be even more expensive this year, because the SBT may have a better chance of passing. The reason? Vermont’s massive budget deficit, most recently estimated at $94 million.
There will be cuts to be sure; but cutting all the way to $94 million would be incredibly painful. It would, of necessity, focus primarily on the Agency of Human Services, which consumes the lion’s share of the General Fund budget. That’d be unpalatable to most lawmakers and to a liberal base already put off by Gov. Shumlin’s abandonment of single-payer health care.
So lawmakers will be looking for relatively painless ways to raise revenue. And that could carry the day for the SBT, which would raise about $35 million per year. That’s more than one-third of the budget gap taken care of right there.
The SBT does face a long uphill battle. Gov. Shumlin opposes it, although his stridency appears to be dwindling a bit. House and Senate leadership are cool to the idea, but advocates are hoping they will warm up as the budget pressure increases.
And sure as shootin’, “the most sought-after Guns for Hire” will be ready to ride into town, tossing money around like bullets in a spaghetti Western. The TV ads will be ubiquitous, touting “consumer choice” and featuring Mom ‘n Pop types worried about the tax’s impact on their little corner store. They’ll also be prominently featured in anti-SBT testimony in the Legislature — even though the big money behind the campaign will come from the beverage industry and big retail chains.
If they spent $600,000 two years ago to kill a longshot SBT bill, how much will they spend this year? Your guesses should start at a million bucks. Two mill would not surprise me.
Just think: more money than any political campaign in Vermont history, spent in a few short months over a soda tax.
This may be our first real taste of the post-Citizens United, Wild West world of unfettered money in politics.