Bethel City Council’s vote on a tax on sugary beverages has been indefinitely postponed. The decision was made after extensive public comment at the April 27 city council meeting. The move effectively kills the proposed ordinance unless a council member chooses to resurrect it for a future meeting.
There were nearly four hours of public testimony, both for and against the proposed tax, which would have added a 1-cent-per-ounce tax to sugar-sweetened beverages. As an excise tax, it would have been applied directly to the distributor, but many argued that the cost would have been passed onto the consumer.
In a published letter read into the record at the meeting, Bethel Elder and Orutsararmiut Native Council (ONC) member Gloria Simeon called this a “judgement tax” imposed on Natives by non-Natives. She said that she spoke only on behalf of herself.
“Our city council, as it is, as it has been, does not truly represent the demographic of our village,” said Simeon.
Although proponents of the tax said that it will help reduce preventative health issues caused by sugar consumption, Simeon said that is not the best way.
“Research has shown conclusively that access, education, prevention, and intervention are the way to deal with these issues. Giving people the information they need to make good decisions,” said Simeon.
Reading from her letter, Simeon asked what the council, made up of mostly non-Natives, planned to do next.
“Is the next campaign going to Aniak, St. Mary’s, Hooper Bay, and Toksook Bay to infiltrate their councils and bring these judgments and taxes to the villages? What is next on the list of judgments? Potato chips, cookies, candy bars?” asked Simeon.
Under tribal jurisdicion, Diné Slow Food movement leader Denisa Livingston has helped tax those very things in her own community. Livingston called in to the Bethel City Council meeting to testify from Navajo Nation, which has a 2% sales tax on unhealthy foods like potato chips, cookies, and candy bars.
“We have been addressing the high rates of our obesity, diabetes, and complications of health issues caused by food related diseases, and that also really includes sugar amongst our Diné communities,” said Livingston.
Research shows that although Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Alaska Natives don’t appear to suffer from very high rates of diabetes at first glance, since the 1960s, they have been trending towards high rates at the fastest pace among other Alaska Native groups.
Denisa Livingston helped pass Navajo Nation’s tax in 2015. The tax was up for renewal late last year, and it was unanimously renewed by a tribal council vote.
Livingston said that since 2019 alone, the tax has generated $7.5 million in revenue. That money is placed in a special fund dedicated to wellness activities like building trails, holding classes in fitness, and Navajo teachings.
“And for us as our tribe, it was really an attempt to save our next generations to plan for future generations,” said Livingston.
The proposed Bethel ordinance also would have allocated all revenue to a parks and recreation-geared fund. But opponents said that much of the tax revenue would be generated by Native people from surrounding villages who come to Bethel to shop. People who wouldn’t be able to use the local parks for recreation.
Livingston said that besides generating revenue for healthy activities, the tax really has reduced the consumption of unhealthy food among her people. But it hasn’t been easy.
“My testimony tonight is really to speak to how much work and years it has taken, but also to see the benefits now, and the reduction of purchases of unhealthy foods, including those sugary beverages.” said Livingston.
ONC opposes the tax and said that Denisa Livingston did not contact the tribe ahead of her public testimony. Council chairman Henry Hunter Sr. said that the vote should go to the people of Bethel for true representation.
“Let them decide.” said Hunter Sr.
And Simeon said that that next time, the City of Bethel should consult with the tribe.
“We, the citizens of the City of Bethel and the Nation of the Orutsararmiut Traditional Native Council, must work together,” said Simeon.
She also called for greater respect and consideration, adding:
“Please do not marginalize us in your judgments and penalize us. Come to us for understanding and let us walk together with the same vision for the future of our community.”
Simeon said that she’s relieved the ordinance didn’t pass. She said that she was dismayed by the divisiveness this issue has caused, and that it’s time to put this behind us. That’s what the city council vote, in effect, did.