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Philly's soda tax facing new challenges in Pa. Senate

A state senator from Mount Pocono is pushing an effort to kill Philadelphia's soda tax while critics of the levy gather for a hearing in Harrisburg Tuesday.

Philadelphia’s soda tax, which pays for pre-K education and other programs, could face a challenge from the state Senate.
Philadelphia’s soda tax, which pays for pre-K education and other programs, could face a challenge from the state Senate.Read moreAARON RICKETTS / Staff Photographer

The debate about Philadelphia's soda tax shifts to Harrisburg this week, with one state senator offering a platform for critics to bash the levy while another seeks support to outlaw it.

Sen. Scott Wagner, a York County Republican running for governor, will hold a hearing Tuesday on the tax at the request of Sen. Anthony H. Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat.

Wagner first tried to hold his hearing in City Hall in June but was shut down by 45 minutes of sustained cacophony from protesters who support the tax.

Sen. Mario Scavello, a Republican from Monroe County, asked his colleagues in a memo Tuesday to cosponsor "preemption legislation" to outlaw the tax and prevent other municipalities from passing similar measures.

Philly's tax has added since January 1.5 cents per ounce to the cost of most sugary and diet beverages sold in Philadelphia to fund pre-K education, community schools, parks, recreation centers, and libraries.

Scavello, in his memo, called those projects "laudable" but knocked the tax as "an extreme burden on grocery stores and convenience stores."

Love it or loathe it, the soda tax is a local issue that was subjected to an extended public debate and has already survived two legal challenges.

I have a couple of questions for Scavello, who didn't give me a chance to ask them last week.

First, how would Mount Pocono — a town of 3,000 people 80 miles north of Philadelphia — feel if a senator from a city of 1.5 million people told them what they could and couldn't tax?

And why would anyone take seriously the senator's call for Philly to rethink its approach to raising revenue when the General Assembly is 3½ months past the deadline to approve a revenue package to pay for the state budget?

The soda tax is Mayor Kenney's signature achievement so far. His spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, said Scavello's memo "precisely mirrors the rhetoric of the beverage industry's multimillion-dollar public relations campaign."

The Ax the Philly Bev Tax, funded by the American Beverage Association, spent $14 million in the city lobbying against the tax since 2016. The Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, which makes regular campaign contributions to Scavello, has also been active.

Expect to hear from them at Wagner's hearing Tuesday.

Williams, who finished second to Kenney in the 2015 Democratic primary election for mayor, opposes the soda tax but supports the projects it funds. He does not support preemption legislation.

He said the hearing is meant "to lay the groundwork with some of the conservative members" in the Senate about what Philadelphia is trying to accomplish with the soda tax-funded projects.

Kenney and Williams are wary of each other, as if the 2015 race for mayor is still grinding on. And maybe it will just drag into Kenney's bid for reelection in 2019.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who opposes the tax and will leave office in January after losing the Democratic primary election in May, is already flirting with the soda industry for support for a 2019 challenge to Kenney.

Butkovitz on Monday will announce the findings from a "beverage-tax survey" that he says "reached out to 1,500 businesses around the city." He also plans to testify at Tuesday's hearing.

While the Wagner show may prove interesting, especially if the protesters show up again, Scavello is now the politician to watch when it comes to the soda tax.