Editor’s Update: The Bill has passed the City Council making Philadelphia the first major city to tax soft drinks.
On Wednesday, June 8th, a Philadelphia City Council committee voted “yes” to an amended version of Mayor Jim Kenney’s controversial soda tax. The original tax, 3.0-cents-per-ounce, would have raised an estimated $95 million each year for universal pre-K and improvements to city parks and recreation centers.
The revised proposal calls for a 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax and the addition of diet soda to the list of taxable sweetened beverages. At $91 million, the projected revenue is just short of the initial goal. Kenney’s administration has also introduced some last-minute plans for the tax: $41 million of the revenue through 2020 will be applied to the city fund. The City Council is expected to pass this amended bill during this week’s final vote.
But will kids see the promised benefits?
The day before, Philadelphia’s City Hall courtyard was busy with tricycles bearing two hopeful messages: “Honk for Pre-K” and “Pedalin’ for Parks.” Kids from local preschools were out in full force for the Philadelphia Parks Alliance’s pop-up playground and rally in support of the soda tax.
Renee and her twin grandsons, Chad and Khalid, were there to fight for universal pre-K. “Public schools should be a viable option, but they just aren’t anymore. I got a great public school education, and I want to make that available to my grandkids.” She believes that pre-K for all would help level the playing field for children from diverse backgrounds, giving them a head start for college. Many Philadelphia parents cannot afford the monthly preschool fees, often $1,000 or more, and admissions are competitive. Philadelphia would be the first major U.S. city to pass an initiative making preschool accessible to every child.
Thelma Peake, director of Peake’s Little Angels Daycare, said she hoped the tax would help bring more kids to her daycare center, plus make it possible to pay qualified teachers and caretakers. The median hourly wage for a Philadelphia childcare worker was just $9.96 in 2015.
The cost of pre-K was less of a concern for Ben, who was at the rally to support the local parks and playgrounds enjoyed by his 3-year-old son, James (“Particularly the twisty slides”).
Although it rained on the trike parade, attendees escaped the scattered showers by convening in a second-floor room in City Hall. Kids grabbed pizza and flopped down on the rug to have a different kind of fun: shouting greetings to the City Council members two floors above. It remains to be seen whether their voices will count.
Abu Edwards, Field Director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, said he believes groups with competing interests can work together. “The important thing is Philadelphia is finally putting our kids first by investing in giving them a fair shot at the future. Our city has waited long enough for this moment.”
Similar tax bills failed to pass in Philadelphia under Mayor Nutter. Opponents claimed that these bills enacted “grocery taxes” that ultimately hurt the poor, who are the biggest consumers of sugary drinks.
This time around, alternatives included property tax hikes and Councilwoman Blondell Reynold Brown’s proposed 15-cent tax on beverage containers, which avoided singling out the soda industry. But for some, taxing Big Soda was the whole point. Community activist Marvin Robinson said, “This is not about the consumer. It’s about the CEOs paying their fair share. When you’re getting millions of dollars, you should want to give back.”
The 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax will be leveraged at the distributor level and will also apply to sports drinks, sweetened teas, alcohol mixers, and other sugary beverages. Healthy drinks, like milk and fruit juices, will be exempt.
Jonathan Kirch, Government Relations Director for the American Heart Association, commented, “The notion is that you can avoid sugary drinks and be healthier. You don’t need soda to survive. Plus, every component of the soda tax proposal—from improved parks to increased educational resources—improves public health.”
However, preventing obesity was never the primary goal. Other cities have tried and failed to pass soda taxes on a public health platform, with Berkeley becoming the first U.S. city to succeed. Philadelphia will be the first to pass such a tax to improve children’s welfare.
The last-minute addition of Kenney’s city fund initiative may undercut these good intentions. City Council President Darrell Clarke said, “Today, the Administration disclosed that it also intends to use the soda tax to shore up the General Fund. It is the view of many members of Council that a General Fund problem … should not be resolved by a proposal that affects mostly low-income people.”
However, George Matysik, Director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, is viewing Wednesday’s vote as a firm victory. He said, “We knew all along that a big piece of this package was going to other city initiatives [besides parks and pre-K]. The initial projections we’ve seen should fully fund everything. It’s a great opportunity to rebuild, both literally and figuratively.”
Matysik says that currently the capital budget for more than 300 parks and recreation sites is just over $10 million a year. Hundreds of millions are needed to refurbish these sites, which feature crumbling surfaces, damaged equipment, and outdated infrastructure. The soda tax, plus private fund matching, should make it possible to breathe new life into once-vibrant playgrounds and rec centers.
Though the fight is not over, Matysik is optimistic that the bill will pass next Thursday. He gives credit to the “authentic Philadelphians” who testified on behalf of parks, libraries, and pre-K. “The Council has responded to us, and we believe that grassroots will win over the AstroTurf the other side is putting out there.”