Last week, state Health Department Commissioner Richard Daines contributed an editorial to the Albany Times Union which supported a new tax on soft drinks, iced tea, juices and sports drinks. This “fat tax” is part of a proposed $1 billion tax package being pushed by the Paterson administration in its 2010-2011 Executive Budget. The new levies would come on top of $8.2 billion in job-killing taxes, fees and fines imposed on New Yorkers as a result of last year’s state budget, a record piece of pork that we voted against. Under Daines’ and Paterson’s plan, a typical New York family of four would pay more than $220 annually on beverages. It’s also estimated that 20,000 Americans currently employed in the soft-drink business would be threatened with layoffs as a result of the fat tax’s passage.
Where would the new revenue go? According to Daines, this “innovative public policy” would deposit it in failing sick care programs like Medicaid that are shot through with waste, outright fraud and abuse. While we agree with Dr. Daines and other well-intentioned public officials that tackling obesity, especially in children, ought to remain a priority for state health experts, we cannot condone a tax that will raise prices on millions of consumers, put soft-drink-industry workers out of a job, and place punitive restrictions on individual choice. The Paterson administration, for all its healthy rhetoric, lacks “carrots” in the fight against obesity and relies instead on the costly fat tax “stick.”
When it comes to government, actions taken on behalf of public health are usually a slippery slope. That’s because it’s natural for a state government like ours to perceive a right to “health” amongst the recipients of its publicly funded health care. At this point a government can (and usually does) take all steps necessary to guarantee good health, no matter how invasive or constitutionally dubious. But a tax is the most regressive method for controlling behavior. Excise taxes hit working people hardest, those with lower disposable incomes, and families with more children. Without a targeted public information campaign, a fat tax will not prevent obesity; it will only eat up a greater percentage of families’ budgets during our painful economic recovery.
There’s a better way to encourage healthy behavior and save New Yorkers money. We are re-introducing a bill which grants a $500 refundable tax credit – a New York Fitness Income Tax credit (NYFIT) – to families enrolling their children in sports activities, martial arts programs and exercise- related activities. Fat tax supporters want to restrict individual choice and fund broken healthcare systems with more of your hard-earned money. Promoting a healthier lifestyle through an income tax credit makes better sense: it protects freedom while reducing the fiscal strain on future state healthcare budgets.
States such as New York are desperate to put their financial houses in order after years of profligate spending. This is a justified and, frankly, overdue response to the emergency the Empire State currently faces. But we cannot balance our books on the backs of working New Yorkers and their families. A fat tax would cost an additional $1.44 for a 12-pack of soda and 68 cents more for a two-liter bottle. Our NYFIT credit would put money in your pocket to provide our children with healthy sports and recreational activities. There is nothing “innovative” about Dr. Daines’ idea. It is one more tax New Yorkers can’t afford to see passed.