Two visions of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s first term are competing for attention on television. One shows a city succeeding with new programs and policies. The other shows a city imposing unfair taxes despite being flush with cash.
This air war is not coming from Kenney or the two Democratic primary challengers trying to deny his bid for a second term. In a repeat from four years ago, the big spending is by special interests rather than candidates. And the city’s controversial sweetened beverage tax is at the center of it all.
The American Beverage Association, which spent $16.2 million from 2016 to 2018 to combat the tax, on Saturday started spending $408,000 to air two weeks of commercials critical of Kenney’s signature program.
That follows a $130,732 purchase of television air time by a new political action committee, Philly 2019, bankrolled by the city’s building trades unions, which are backing Kenney. That ad touts new pre-K classes funded by the tax.
Kenney faces two beverage-tax opponents in the May 21 primary, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams and former City Controller Alan Butkovitz. The ABA has already started campaigning against City Council members who voted for the tax.
The new TV ad cites the city’s $368 million fiscal year 2018 budget surplus, saying that could have been used to “fund critical needs like pre-K without the unfair beverage tax that hits working families the hardest.”
It urges viewers to “tell City Council to stand up to the mayor” and end the tax.
Anna Adams-Sarthou, a spokesperson for an ABA-financed group pushing to eliminate the tax, said, “City Council has the chance to do the right thing and repeal the tax now.”
Council approved the tax by a 13-4 vote in June 2016. Since January 2017, the tax has added 1.5 cents per ounce to the cost of sweetened beverages. Along with paying for pre-K, it was created to fund programs and repairs for community schools, parks, recreation centers and libraries.
Harrison Morgan, a spokesperson for Kenney’s campaign, said the ABA’s ad came as little surprise.
“We fully expected the multibillion-dollar beverage industry to pour big money into this election,” Morgan said in an email. “They’re more concerned with their profit margins than the children of Philadelphia.”
Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, echoed that, saying the ad is another example of the industry’s misleading onslaught against the tax, “in which residents are continually subjected to false information.”
Dunn said Kenney’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year dedicates more funding for violence prevention, road paving, and the Philadelphia School District. Funding for programs paid for by the tax “can’t be drawn from other programs without major consequences to our city and economy," Dunn said.