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Byko: Kenney's soda tax 'win' might cost him

City Council got played for fools

On your score cards, it's a preliminary win for Jim Kenney and a loss for the beverage industry - and not just the sugary piece of it. Other losers are soda drinkers and retailers who sell it. The mayor's win came despite a rabbit punch to City Council Wednesday afternoon.

The rabbit punch came in the form of an admission during the hearing by city finance director Rob Dubow that - did we neglect to mention this? - a large chunk of the tax would be used to fill a hole in the city's fund balance, which is important to Philly's bond rating.

That's when mostly blindsided Council members learned that once (or if) they pass the new, improved soda tax at its June 16 session, $41 million will go to the fund balance rather than to pre-K seats, improvements to parks, schools, libraries and rec centers.

Was that deceit by the administration? Dishonesty? Politics?

"We heard it was all about the kids, all about the kids," complained Councilman Bill Greenlee. "Now we heard it's also about the fund balance."

"What happened last night was vintage Vince Fumo," said one long-time political observer. "Keep them in the dark until the last minute and spring it on them." He didn't have to remind me Kenney learned the art of politics from the once all-powerful, and later felonated, state senator.

Although he asked for an astronomical 3-cent-an-ounce tax on sugary beverages to fund "quality, affordable" pre-K, plus improvements mentioned above, what Kenney got was a tax cut in half, to 1.5 cents an ounce, but extended to snare diet soda. The tax pain would be lessened, but also broadened.

This was Kenney's first major mayoral initiative. All along he said he (and "the children," of course) couldn't afford to lose and also said there was no other way to fund it.

There were other ways, but he wasn't interested in them. He had picked a scapegoat, Big Soda, and he was going to shake them down "for the school children," just as alcohol by the glass and tobacco had been shaken down earlier.

First the city drives soda out of the public schools, then demands it pay to fund pre-K. That's chutzpah.

During the months-long fight, Kenney cavalierly told people, such as the poor on whom the repressive tax would fall the heaviest, they could avoid the tax by switching to diet soda.

Now they can't.

So Kenney won this round, but it was a decision, not a knockout, and his cornerman is telling him he's got a few cuts on his red face that may leave scars.

Do you think most on Council enjoy being played for fools by the administration withholding the diversion of money to the balance fund?

Despite being a creature of Council, Kenney did not show that body the respect it demands. He played bait-and-switch on them.

Not-so-coincidentally, one day later City Council President Darrell Clarke called for hearings this summer to examine the city's operating budget and its financial health. In yo' face, Mr. Mayor.

Early on, Kenney felt he had nine votes for his insanely excessive 3-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks, but that got derailed as often happens in politics. He might have had promises that melted in the face of consumer resistance.

A David Binder Research poll done last week showed only 38 percent of Philadelphians favor the 3-cent-an-ounce tax.

The reduction of the tax from 3 cents to 1.5 cents apparently gave him the votes he needed. Philadelphia now is poised to become the first major city to tax soda. It's been tried some 30 times before, but only tiny, wealthy, left-wing Berkeley, Cal., passed one, at only 1 percent. If the bill passes on Thursday, Philly will best Berkeley by 50 percent. We're No. 1. Take a bow.

Right up to the end, there was confusion as to which way Council would go, pondering the administration's 3-cent-an-ounce tax termed "ridiculous" by Clarke, who circulated 10 other options for coming up with the money.

On Tuesday, one day before the Council meeting, Councilwoman Cindy Bass sprung a proposal to increase the city real estate tax by nearly 7 percent over five years.

Before you could say whaaat?, it was withdrawn. I mean, about an hour later Bass yanked it, saying Kenney had the necessary nine of 17 votes.

And so he did on Wednesday.

Will he have the same nine on Thursday?

Probably, but it's conceivable he could lose some votes to teach him a lesson about disrespecting his former colleagues.

215-854-5977 @StuBykofsky