Tax on a latte is too hard to swallow for Seattle coffee houses

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The Independent US

In Seattle, they are waging the great espresso war of 2003. It is a conflict pitting Starbucks, the giant that introduced the world to double decaf cappuccinos, against many of its own customers. It is a conflict in which Seattleites are being denounced by friends and neighbours as either self-hating coffee drinkers or foamed-topped, penny-pinching misers.

The bone of contention is a proposed "latte tax", a 10-cent levy on all espresso-based coffee drinks to be put before Seattle voters on 16 September. Proceeds from the tax would go to the city's cash-strapped early education programmes for pre-school children.

Proponents of the measure say it is a near-painless way to raise revenue for a good cause. As John Burbank, the economic policy analyst who had the idea, likes to say: "One of the good things about Seattle is we love our coffee and we love our kids. So let's make that connection."

But Starbucks and the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce have formed Joined to Oppose the Latte Tax, or Jolt. To them, the 10-cent tax is irrational, discriminatory and threatens to unleash a slew of seemingly innocuous levies on popular consumer items. "We're concerned this... would set a precedent for taxing different products or services at different rates, to pay for totally unrelated programs," Jolt spokeswoman Stephanie Newman said.

What, she asked, if bottled water suddenly cost 25 cents more to pay for immunisation programmes, or Seattle Mariners' baseball tickets went up $2 to pay for literacy programmes? To which Mr Burbank and others say these would hardly be the end of the world, and might save vital social services amid economic gloom and budget shortfalls.

The tax originated with a petition signed by 20,000 people last year. Seattle is unusual in opting to pay more for something it famously loves. These taxes are usually directed at perceived social evils, say, alcohol or cigarettes.

Opinion polls suggest support for the tax as high as 74 per cent, and Mr Burbank's campaign has raised $100,000. Jolt has raised only $70,000, much of it from out-of-town interests, presumably corporations worried that latte taxes and similarly horrifying proposals could be coming to their city soon, too.