Jim Kenney promotes soda tax

Mayor Kenney pitched his sugary drink tax proposal in 2016. The City Council now weighs unraveling the imposed fee. — Emma Lee / WHYY

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Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has been handed a new and potentially dire challenge to the city’s soda tax — the signature achievement of his first term.

A bill introduced by City Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez at a City Council meeting on Thursday would gradually phase out a portion of the tax on sweetened beverages through 2021. The bill lacks specific numbers, so it could phase out the tax entirely or just reduce it.

The bill is the most serious challenge to hit the levy on sugary drinks since it survived a legal challenge from the beverage industry in 2018.

Kenney whipped up Council support for the 1.5-cent-an-ounce tax in 2016 as a funding vehicle for his mayoral agenda, which includes programs such as subsidized pre-kindergarten and the public works program known as Rebuild. But the policy also drew the ire of the powerful beverage industry, which is still spending millions to kill the tax.

While the specifics of the legislation remain murky, the breadth of support is clear. All three Republican Council members — Brian O’Neill, David Oh, and Al Taubenberger — support the measure, along with Democrats Cindy Bass, Blondell Reynolds Brown and Allan Domb.

“I think everyone in Council is in favor of the programs, pre-K and Rebuild,” said Domb, of the phase-out bill. “But I think … broad-based initiatives, like pre-K and Rebuild should be paid for by a broad-based tax, not a narrow tax.”

A separate resolution introduced Thursday calls for a study of how the tax affects city businesses.

“I believe a study of it is good. That’s the place to start,” O’Neill said. “Let’s see what the effect has been; the effect on business, the effect on Rebuild and pre-K. And we’ll go from there. It’s always the right time to have hearings and not just turn your back on it.”

Beverage industry spokesman Anthony Campisi praised the proposal and sought to link the tax to a city supermarket closing.

“We appreciate that these Council members recognize that the beverage tax is a harmful policy. However, we don’t need a study to know that the tax hurts working families across Philadelphia and should be repealed,” Campisi said.

“This tax has cost hundreds of job and caused the closure of one West Philadelphia grocery store – which closed its doors for the final time this morning,” he added.

Quiñones-Sánchez declined to comment on the legislation. Her 7th District includes a soda-bottling facility, and Quiñones-Sánchez has opposed the tax since the idea was broached.

The sheer number of co-sponsors makes the bill the strongest legislative challenge to the tax. The beverage industry has succeeded in repealing similar taxes in other cities including Chicago.

However, effort in Philadelphia remains just two votes shy of the nine needed to clear the chamber, and 12 votes are needed to override a mayoral veto.

Kevin Feeley, who represents a coalition of interests who support the soda tax, notes that the legislation is silent about the effects on programs receiving funding from the levy.

“We weren’t surprised by the introduction of the bill. The industry has been advocating for this for three years,” he said. “But the beverage tax funds programs that are vital to Philadelphia’s future. So, we look forward to the public debate and hearing how opponents explain how they plan to fund these programs without it.”

Legislation outlining the new study suggests that a fee on single-use plastic bags, like those used at supermarkets and corner stores, could be used as an alternative funding source. — (WHYY)

This article originally ran on phillytrib.com.

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