WILL THE SODA TAX fizzle out for a second year in a row?

Debate raged at City Hall yesterday over the soda tax that Mayor Nutter has proposed to help provide extra money to the school district. Opponents of the tax held a lunchtime rally outside the building. Later in the day, some City Council members met behind closed doors to discuss options.

Nutter, who spent the day visiting schools, is lobbying to get more money for the district, which faces a $629 million gap for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Besides a soda tax, he has proposed a property-tax hike and an increase in parking-meter fees.

Still, Nutter's preference is undoubtedly for the 2-cent-per-ounce sugar-sweetened beverage tax, which he failed to get through Council last year. But as of last night, it did not appear that the necessary nine votes for the soda tax were locked down.

"Real estate never really was alive and sugar is pretty much dead," said Councilman Jim Kenney.

Mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said that the debate isn't over.

"Many members recognize that something needs to be done," McDonald said. "We're just not there yet. We will be soon."

Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has asked for up to $100 million in additional funds from the city, which is already set to provide $815 million in tax revenues and grant funding next year. It appears that Nutter is hoping to get Council to approve at least $66 million, provided some state support comes through.

A 2-cent soda tax would raise $60 million in the coming fiscal year if started Oct. 1, according to administration projections. A 10 percent property-tax hike would generate $95 million, and the parking fee would raise $6 million.

Some members have expressed interest in reducing the city's projected surplus-fund balance in the coming fiscal year to provide more school funding, but the Nutter administration has warned that this could force significant cuts to the city budget.

Council will resume a hearing on the tax proposals tomorrow morning and would likely have to make a decision by then to achieve final passage by June 23, the last scheduled session before summer recess.

Union workers, business owners and industry advocates protested outside City Hall yesterday as beverage-delivery trucks circled the building and honked. The demonstrators argued that the soda industry was being unfairly targeted.

"It's real easy if you want to put things on the backs of working people," said William Hamilton, president of Teamsters Joint Council No. 53. "This is just another way to do it, a fancier way by putting it on an industry that's going to cost good, hardworking jobs for this city."

Four Council members attended the rally - Jannie Blackwell, Bill Green, Bill Greenlee and Brian O'Neill.

"In my opinion no matter what form it's in, the soda tax is illegal, and not only that, I know it's unfair," Greenlee said.

The administration argues that the industry's predictions that the tax would cost jobs and create a black market for soda echo similar doomsday threats made about previous taxes, like the liquor-by-the-drink tax. It believes that a soda tax is the best way to preserve jobs and services in the district.