All eyes were on Telluride in the 2013 election season, as voters and lobbyists debated the merits and negative effects of a proposed tax on sugary drinks.
National beverage lobbyists spent months in town, fighting the proposed sales tax, sparking debate that divided the community – and led to the ballot measure’s defeat at the polls in November.
In August, at the request of a group of citizens, the Telluride Town Council approved a ballot question that would charge a one-cent-per-one-fluid-ounce excise tax on sugary beverages sold in town.
Elisa Marie Overall, director of the Physical Education Program, a grant-funded program that educates Telluride and Norwood K-12 students about healthy diet and lifestyle decisions, first proposed the excise tax on sugary beverages to Town Council in July, arguing that sugary beverages are a key contributing factor to the nation’s escalating obesity rates in children and young adults.
The new revenue stream, estimated at $200,000 to $400,000 annually, would go to fund scholarships, physical activity-centered afterschool programs and gardening programs to educate children about the joys and rewards of growing fresh vegetables.
Telluride’s was not the first city government to attempt to disincentive soda purchases, with a judge shooting down New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to ban drinks sold in containers larger than 16 oz. in March.
The proposed Telluride tax drew fire from the beverage industry, with the Colorado Beverage Association, an industry lobbying group, spending $20,000 funding a “No on 2A” campaign. On the other side of the issue, billionaire and part-time San Miguel County resident John Arnold, a former Enron executive, who with an $8 million bonus from that company established what became a behemoth Houston-based hedge fund, bankrolled Kick the Can Telluride, a local 2A advocacy group, with a $50,000 donation.
Some Telluride voters reacted with dismay to the role played by the outside parties, which fueled a debate that may have become more heated due to their involvement. Tiny Telluride, for better or worse, had become an early test case for both sides in debating what may be an issue of the future: whether sugar can or should be regulated.
When it came time for voters to decide in November, the sugar tax failed by a 69-31 percent margin, but not before an estimated total $81.30 per registered Telluride voter (totaling $148,467) was spent in the fight over ballot question 2A.