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Commentary: Mayor's soda tax is a big gulp of folly

Joe DeFelice is chairman of the Philadelphia Republican City Committee Jim Kenney, our new mayor, has hitched his political wagon to a grocery tax that is three times that of the only other one imposed in the United States - in überliberal Berkeley, Calif.

Joe DeFelice

is chairman of the Philadelphia Republican City Committee

Jim Kenney, our new mayor, has hitched his political wagon to a grocery tax that is three times that of the only other one imposed in the United States - in überliberal Berkeley, Calif.

The 3-cents-an-ounce tax would fall most heavily on the working poor, who spend the largest portion of their incomes on groceries. That much was admitted recently by Rob Dubow, the mayor's finance director, during questioning by City Council.

The regressive nature of the tax is not the only reason to oppose it. It would also be another burden for businesses in a city where too many are without a job. It would make nonalcoholic beverages competitive with liquor or beer in terms of price. Most damning, the proposal relies on flimsy math to fund another entitlement in a city that can't afford the ones it already has.

The grocery tax - which, yes, would cover juice boxes for your kids, sports drinks at the game, and that Turkey Hill iced tea we love in the summer - would hurt already-strained manufacturers like Coca-Cola in Juniata and PepsiCo in the Northeast.

People who have the time and means to travel across state or county lines will do so, along with their tax dollars. But the poorest, most financially overstretched Philadelphians will end up paying more for a case of soda than they would for a 30-pack of Miller Lite.

And those mom-and-pop stores in our poorest neighborhoods, which are sometimes the only purveyors of fresh food? They'll be hurt too. It's a stunning act of hypocrisy to witness those same people who lecture us about food deserts then turn around and implement policies that will cause food sellers to go belly-up.

And speaking of those poorest Philadelphians, when did it become the job of the government to deprive a working mom, already juggling two or three jobs, of the comfort of a can of soda when she walks through the door? But that attitude is typical of the scolds who run the Democratic Party, whether it's banning certain kinds of lightbulbs or plastic bags at the checkout line.

If a behavior is deemed "bad" by the party bosses or their donors, it's no longer allowed - consumers be damned.

There's no reason to believe this tax won't be followed by more overreach. Why not a tax on Tastykakes and french fries? How about a tax on driving? The mayor relies on the invented moniker "Big Soda" to suggest that opponents of this tax are evil. But does anybody really think that so-called Big Soda is as great a threat to our lives as is Big Government?

The worst part of the mayor's plan is that his stated aim of funding universal pre-K and the unstated goal of reducing unhealthy behavior are in direct contradiction.

If the tax that seeks to fund this new entitlement also inherently reduces the behavior from which it draws its revenue, where does that leave Philly schoolchildren as the revenue numbers go down every year?

Even the Kenney administration's own projections suggest that, with this tax, Philadelphians would immediately shift their behavior and buy fewer beverages in the city. If people drink less because it's more expensive to do so - a basic fundamental of economics - then who or what is going to fund our schools and rec centers when the well runs dry?

If the mayor were really serious about supporting Philly's schoolchildren and handling our city's looming fiscal crisis, he could begin by slashing the size of his own administration, which is already 45 percent larger than his predecessor's and 40 percent more costly. He could promote a serious discussion about parent choice in schooling, rewarding our best teachers with merit pay, and ending the system of patronage politics that costs our city millions a year. Philadelphians understand there's fat to be cut - and not just in relation to a grocery tax.

Finally, to fix our crumbling rec centers, city Republicans have an idea for the mayor:

Let those same companies that clambered to fund our shining stadiums in South Philly - who the mayor decries as Big Marketers - sponsor and brand our rec centers and the athletes that compete in them.

Unlike the bureaucrats in City Hall, these companies actually have a vested interest in giving back to our communities because they draw their customers and their labor pool from among us. Athletics can often be a route out of poverty for some of our poorest children, who are subjected to Third World schooling courtesy of decades of entrenched Democratic rule. Therefore, our rec centers, which provide services to our most needy, should not be eliminated from the kind of sponsorship opportunities that made our finest stadiums viable in the first place.

The city should be open to private-public partnerships to improve the assets we've already got, making for a freer and more prosperous city - all at zero cost to the taxpayer. Then the citizens of Philadelphia would know who is the better force in our lives.

Big Soda over Big Government.