The soda tax has been the center of numerous battles that included the fight for votes, legal challenges, court rulings, and aggressive public relations campaigns by the beverage industry. Now, Mayor Jim Kenney’s biggest legislative victory is getting its first challenge from City Council — two months before an election.
On Thursday, Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez introduced a bill that will give Council the ability to change elements of the soda tax, including the rate and type of beverages that are covered. If successful, Council would have the ability, starting next year, to phase out and potentially eliminate the tax. Accompanying the bill is a resolution to study the economic impacts of the tax. Six members of Council cosponsored Quinones-Sanchez’s bill, two votes short of the number needed to pass.
The bill comes on the same week that a ShopRite in West Philadelphia closed, allegedly due to the soda-tax running it out of business. The store will be replaced with a Key Foods, which has said it is not concerned by the tax.
Like many of its foes, Quinones-Sanchez argues that the tax is regressive — meaning that people of lower income pay the majority of the revenue — and poorly designed, harming small businesses and spurring a black market for soda.
The administration points to the 2,250 pre-K slots — double that by 2022 — and 12 community schools that opened thanks to the tax revenue. In addition, the tax revenues are used to fund the Rebuild program to renovate parks, libraries, recreation centers, and playgrounds. The money to fund these efforts was sidelined until the latest court decision upholding the tax, and now the program is getting in motion.
While improved health was not the primary factor in creating the tax, it is a significant side benefit, especially given the high obesity rates in the city. According to the 2018 Health of the City report from the Department of Public Health, about 22 percent of children are obese and 35 percent of adults. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the tax has led to a significant reduction in the self-reported sugary drink consumption of Philadelphians.
For all these reasons, we have supported and continue to support taxing a harmful product to help fund programs that have profound and long-term benefits. No policy is sacrosanct — not even the soda tax. Evaluating the impact of the tax, or any policy, is a positive step toward responsible policy-making. That’s why the study Sanchez wants to conduct is a good idea, especially if it can begin to measure the long-term benefits of better-educated children. But introducing a bill to modify or eliminate the tax before the results are published makes no sense. Quinones-Sanchez should pull back her bill and Kenney should welcome the study.