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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 September, 2003, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Seattle set for coffee tax poll

By Richard Bilton
BBC correspondent in Seattle

"Double tall Soya latte, and a Grande decaf Americana to go."

A poster urging voters to reject the new latte tax, officially known as the Initiative 77
Plans for a latte tax have prompted angry protests
The queue is long and the faces are stern.

Ordering your espresso is a serious business in Seattle and the staff at the Bauhaus Coffee House are dealing with the morning rush.

"Two double tall lattes - non-fat, no foam". More clattering and hiss behind the counter. Another customer shuffles away with his morning fix.

But the drinkers of Seattle now have more to worry about than just the quality of their lattes.

They have got the latte tax. On Tuesday, the city votes on a proposal to cash in on its beloved drink.

"This is a city that loves its coffee and it loves its children - so I thought let's make the connection," says John Burbank who came up with the idea of the latte tax.

Flat 10 cent charge on espresso-style coffee
Fans say it will raise $7m, critics say $2m

Like half the city, he arrives at work with coffee in hand.

He says just putting 10 cents on an espresso would generate millions for pre-school education.

"Anyone who is prepared to pay $3.50 for a double tall vanilla latte, as I did this morning, will not mind giving 10 cents to children who need it," Mr Burbank says.

'No sense'

That suggestion received enough support for it to be put forward at the local elections.

Initiative 77 poster
The tax supporters say it is a small price to pay

There are 1,000 coffee shops across Seattle, every day they sell more than 200,000 shots of espresso.

In the town that gave the world Starbucks - taxing coffee is a big issue.

Across town at the Cafe Allegro, Nathaniel Jackson is hard at work.

The grinding of beans, the steam from foaming milk will continue here all day.

His cafe sits on the edge of the university campus and his customers are not the typical "latte to go" types.

He believes the tax is wrong.

"It make no sense," he says.

"Education is too important for a tax as frivolous as this."

And he is angry at the way the latte tax has been marketed as one group paying for another.

"It promotes a message that if you don't care for this proposal you don't care about children," Nathaniel says.

'It doesn't hurt'

The idea that coffee drinkers have been singled out is strong in Seattle's business community.

A coffee shop in Seattle
Opponents say the tax will hurt smaller coffee houses

They've set up Jolt - Joined to Oppose the Latte Tax.

It is being supported by Starbucks. They say in reality the tax will damage smaller coffee houses without raising any significant funding.

In the downtown cafes it is close to call.

The idea that drip coffee is exempt is of no interest - in Seattle only espresso really counts.

"It seems like as soon as they spot something we like, they tax it!" says one woman drinking with her friends.

At the next table a man sipping his latte disagrees.

"What's a dime? It doesn't hurt and it's for a good cause," the man says.

Pattern to follow?

The bigger issue is about raising revenue.

Washington has no state income tax. It needs to find funds from somewhere - supporters say this "designer" tax provides the answer.

A whole new stream of income with a charge that is less than a tip.

So the city votes on Tuesday.

If it happens in Seattle it's likely the principal could be adopted by other US cities.

The country looks on as the people here in coffee town decide whether they are prepared to accept a tax on the drink they love.

The BBC's Richard Bilton
"Ordering your espresso is a serious business in Seattle"

'Latte tax' vote looms in Seattle
16 Sep 03  |  Business
Grounds for a new tax
16 Sep 03  |  Magazine
Seattle in a froth over latte tax
19 Aug 03  |  Business

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