Steaming in Seattle Over Latte Tax

S E A T T L E, Sept. 15, 2003 -- In Seattle, crazed coffee drinkers are venting over their vanilla lattés these days.

"It's expensive enough as it is, I mean, it's high-priced," said Hans Wolf as he sat outside a trendy coffee shop.

The whole town, it seems, is divided over a proposed 10-cent tax on espresso drinks. The initiative, which goes before voters Tuesday, was designed as a creative way to fund early childhood programs that have fallen victim to deep budget cuts.

The proposed tax would affect drinks served within the city of Seattle with at least a half-ounce of espresso. Drip coffee would not be affected.

"We figured that if you pay $3 for a tall double mocha, which I just did, you'd be willing to pay 10 cents if you knew that was going to pay for early learning for kids," said John Burbank of the Economic Opportunity Institute, which helped launch the initiative.

Burbank estimates 200,000 cups of espresso are sold every day in Seattle. All those extra dimes would add up to $7 million a year, he said. City officials are far more conservative, putting the estimate at only $2 million to $3 million.

Seattle is the home of Starbucks and is known as much for its coffee as it is for the Space Needle. You can hardly walk a block without bumping into a coffee shop. That may be why the proposed latté tax, as its known, has ignited a firestorm of controversy.

Opponents even staged a mock Boston Tea Party as protest, throwing burlap coffee bags into a neighborhood lake while dressed in colonial costumes.

The proposal, known as Initiative 77, faces major opposition from everyone from the Seattle Chamber of Commerce to Starbucks and hundreds of small coffee shops, who say they would be hurt the most by the 10-cent tax.

Two Separate Issues

Chuck Beek, who operated the city's very first latté cart in the days before Starbucks, is one of many here who say child care and espresso simply have nothing to do with each other.

"To pick one small sector of business to tax is kind of crazy," he said.

Many customers feel the same way.

"Yeah, people spend too much on silly coffee drinks, absolutely. But that has nothing to do with child care," said coffee drinker Stu Tursky.

But not everyone agrees. "I think anything you can do for kids is worth 10 cents," another coffee drinker told ABCNEWS.

The issue has been the topic of numerous newspaper editorials and as a testament to espresso's significance here, it has featured prominently in the race for Seattle City Council. It may turn out to be the one issue that actually brings voters out to the polls.

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