Philadelphia City Council OKs soda tax

In an historic vote before hundreds of onlookers and media from across the country, Philadelphia’s City Council approved a precedent-setting soda tax.

Mayor Jim Kenney floated a 3-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages months ago to fund key campaign pledges, like universal pre-K and repairs to city parks and recreation centers. Unusually, around $1.5 million was spent by groups associated with the mayor to promote the tax, while beverage industry lobbyists spent nearly $5 million to kill the bill. 

The heightened public profile of the revenue issue garnered significant national attention. The beverage industry – and other interested groups on both sides – viewed the proposal as precedent-setting, as Philadelphia would be the first big city to enact such a tax.

Ultimately, City Council approved a lower tax – 1.5 cents per ounce – on a wider variety of beverages than just soda, in a move designed to spread out the burden of the tax beyond drinks perceived as being primarily consumed by lower-income residents.

“Philadelphia made a historic investment in our neighborhoods and in our education system today,” said Kenney in a prepared statement. “I commend City Council for working with these community leaders to make quality, affordable pre-K, community schools and systemic improvements to parks, rec centers and libraries a reality.”

Dozens of pro- and anti-tax proponents packed council chambers today to speak. They described the tax, alternately, as life-saving or job-killing. The final vote – which passed with 13 yea to 4 nay votes – was met with deafening cheers and boos. Only council’s three Republicans and Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, whose district includes beverage bottling plants, opposed the measure.

Now the mayor must actually implement a pre-K program and distribute other revenue. Details have been vague on all counts, with much discussion centering around the tax itself rather than precisely what it would pay for. Questions have already been raised about whether Kenney’s proposal of universal pre-K would be universal or even qualify as “pre-K” – in hearings, there has been talk of using soda tax revenues only for income-qualified residents or steering money to day care-type programs.

In other business, council passed a raft of bills for next year’s city budget and voted to change Philadelphia’s real estate transfer tax rate from 3 to 4 percent. Lawmakers also voted on a resolution officially condemning Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s “racist” and “sexist” statements. Republican council members opposed the tax on grounds that council as a whole shouldn’t take a position on political candidates.

Council also voted to honor Akyra Murray, a West Philadelphia woman slain in the Orlando nightclub shooting.