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Priest’s view prompts archdiocese to weigh in, endorse soda tax

April 20, 2017 GMT

Roman Catholic Archbishop John C. Wester belatedly plunged into the debate on the city of Santa Fe’s proposal to tax sugary drinks, endorsing the measure Wednesday only hours after news that one of his prominent priests had urged people to vote it down.

Wester announced the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s support for the proposal to fund early childhood education programs after the Rev. Adam Lee Ortega y Ortiz, rector of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, wrote on his personal Facebook page a day earlier that the tax should be defeated at the polls because it is politically motivated. Ortega did not explain his stand.

After The New Mexican blogged about his post Wednesday, Ortega deleted it from Facebook, and the archdiocese soon after issued a statement saying it had decided to endorse the 2-cents-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugary drinks to pay for prekindergarten programs.

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“To be real honest with you, the priest saying something prompted us to say something,” Allen Sánchez, a spokesman for Wester, said in an interview. “It was time to say something.”

Wester’s endorsement escalated the religious overtones of a debate that had already been framed by a gathering of interfaith leaders last week as a “moral choice,” a characterization that opponents of the plan sharply reject.

Nonetheless, the archbishop’s endorsement of the tax is a major coup for proponents of the proposal in a town that is predominantly Catholic.

Sánchez said the archdiocese had been considering an endorsement, but it typically does not take a stand on municipal issues. Plus, Sánchez said, no reporter had inquired about its position until a reporter for The New Mexican asked the archdiocese for comment on Ortega’s opposition to the tax. The endorsement came at 5:10 p.m. Wednesday, less than two weeks before the May 2 special municipal election on the issue.

“You don’t always get involved. We’re supposed to be there to propose, not impose,” Sánchez said of the Catholic Church.

Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales had asked for the archdiocese’s support long ago, he said, and dialogue on the proposal had gone on for three months. Ortega’s stand against the tax led the archbishop to decide that the Church must speak with one voice, Sánchez said. “Now we’re in this, and we support it.”

He added that the Conference of Catholic Bishops in New Mexico preferred a state constitutional amendment to fund early childhood education with a small portion of the state’s $15 billion land grant endowment. The state House of Representatives voted in March to place that proposal on the ballot, but state senators killed the measure.

“If we could get the constitutional amendment passed, there would be no need for a soda tax,” Sánchez said.

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The archdiocese did not want to get involved in the city tax proposal while the state legislation was alive, he said. The legislative session ended March 18, a month before the archdiocese decided to support the tax.

In its statement endorsing the proposed tax, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe said, “The soda tax is a good attempt to address the dire conditions in which our children are living.”

“In good conscience, we cannot let our children stagnate in the plight they are in, with some of the worst wellbeing outcomes in the nation,” the statement continued. “Until the New Mexico State Senate passes the constitutional amendment for early childhood, municipalities must seek funding for essential programs.”

Ortega did not return messages seeking comment on his Facebook post urging friends to reject the tax.

“This tax has nothing to do with health,” the priest wrote in response to a comment on his post saying such taxes benefit public health. “What’s motivating this tax in [Santa Fe] is not for families, kids or health,” Ortega wrote, “… it’s politics.”

Gonzales said Wednesday he had “great respect” for Ortega but strongly disagreed.

“I believe my push for early childhood education is rooted in the values the Church has taught me,” Gonzales wrote in a statement to The New Mexican.

“Our plan goes to the heart of the Pope’s message, and I will fight with all the energy I have to make sure Santa Fe’s children have a bright future,” wrote Gonzales, who said he grew up Catholic and still looks forward to attending Mass on Sundays at the cathedral.

“Pope Francis spoke to all of us when he said, ‘Always care for the children, not counting the costs.’ He reminded us, ‘Every child who begs on the streets, who is denied an education or medical care, is a cry to God.’ ”

It’s unclear whether Ortega’s Facebook post will have an effect on the special election. Ortega — known to his parishioners as Father Adam — is well-regarded in the community.

Leaders of a group campaigning against the tax, Better Way for Santa Fe & Pre-K, declined to comment.

After The New Mexican tweeted about Ortega’s post, former City Councilor Bill Dimas, who ran for mayor against Gonzales, responded, “AMEN!!! Hallelujah……VOTE NO!!”

Ortega’s Facebook post was shared 36 times and received more than 81 “likes” by midday Wednesday. Before it was later deleted, the post generated primarily comments of support.

Tony Ortiz, however, wasn’t among them.

Ortiz, an attorney who works for Santa Fe Public Schools, said he disagreed with the priest.

“Recent studies demonstrate net benefit to public health and no noticeable economic impact. This is a longer conversation, but I vote yes. It’s good for families, kids, and public,” Ortiz commented.

Sandra Wechsler, the campaign manager for the political action committee working in favor of the proposed tax, said in a statement to The New Mexican about Ortega’s Facebook post that there are “many faith leaders” in the community who support the proposed tax to fund pre-K “for every child in Santa Fe who can’t afford it.”

“Helping those most in need is a longstanding mission of communities of faith,” she wrote.

She also accused the soda industry of “using intimidation” to influence the outcome of the election. “They have silenced organizations and leaders across the city by threatening to pull funding if they support Pre-K for Santa Fe,” she wrote, though she wouldn’t elaborate.

Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 986-3089 or dchacon@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.