By Joseph J. DeFelice
During the months-long debate about Mayor Kenney's proposed soda tax, we heard the same argument over and over:
This is for the kids.
Now, as Council has advanced a "compromise" bill that is likely to pass Thursday, an eleventh-hour change means that much of the revenue is going to a slew of the mayor's distinctly non-child-related priorities. This includes $41 million over four years for the city's general fund - from your pocket to the city's coffers.
Yes, all those children they trucked in for "read-ins" at City Hall were unwittingly supporting our spiraling pension costs and opaque city contracts, which city Democrats are loath to address. Democratic at-large Councilman Bill Greenlee summarized this last-minute bait-and-switch: "We heard it was all about the kids, all about the kids. Sometime this afternoon, we heard it's also about the fund balance." The kids were a convenient bartering tool, but now it seems the mayor is the one taking money away from his own supposedly essential pre-K proposal.
City Finance Director Rob Dubow was unconcerned about this about-face, testifying casually that "we should have brought it up earlier." That's an understatement considering that this entirely new class of tax - that will fall disproportionately on the poorest Philadelphians - has been debated for months, and at the final moment its entire justification has changed.
Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt downplayed it as well: "The mayor simply did not make a big issue of it at public events because it wasn't a major new program." No, funding for the general fund isn't a "major new program," but neither are rec centers, which we've heard plenty of moaning about, as if their slow decline is sudden news to the very Democrats - including the mayor - who have participated in city politics for decades. Kenney may not view $41 million as a "big issue," but assuredly Philadelphians, who are about to see their grocery bills spike, will view it as such.
But that's not the only part of the soda-tax proposal that was a lie. All along, we've heard arguments against the ravages of "Big Soda" and the benefit to community health that would come from taxing sugary beverages. But the tax, billed as a "compromise" because it taxes beverages at 1.5 cents an ounce instead of 3 cents, ended up snaring diet sodas in the final hours. Just as those children were trotted out for a completely different purpose, so too were the community-health "experts." We kept hearing about "ancillary health benefits," and the damage done by Big Soda. But then a last-minute U-turn expanded the tax to more people - while disincentivizing the healthy choice that was supposed to justify the cost. Diet soda is just another product to tax, which was probably part of the plan all along.
When the dust settles on this ignominious tax increase and Philadelphia becomes one of only two municipalities to tax beverages, it is our hope that it will be reported on and known by city residents for what it really is: a money grab imposed on an arbitrary product that will fall hardest on the poorest and do nothing to address our city's long-term issues.
While the mayor and Council have debated no less than four different types of tax hikes in the last weeks alone, there's been no word on any proactive agenda to fix our spiraling pension crisis or make productive changes to our education system. Frankly, the mayor hasn't even fleshed out what his pre-K program would look like or whether it's truly "universal."
So what's left to drink for over-taxed city dwellers? Well, in related news, city officials quietly announced last week that water rates are set to rise 10 percent this summer, in part due to "poor service" on their own part. The message from city Democrats to Philadelphians has become clear: Don't drink anything, and eat dirt.