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Pa. legislators trying to kill soda tax in Philly and elsewhere | Editorial

Philadelphia has decided to take the lead in funding education in the city after years of waiting for the state General Assembly to step up. But now some members of the state House want to get in the way of the "soda tax" funding pre-K in Philadelphia.

Beverages covered by the ‘sugary drink’ tax include diet sodas.
Beverages covered by the ‘sugary drink’ tax include diet sodas.Read moreAARON RICKETTS / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia has been clear that it no longer wants to wait for the state General Assembly to adequately fund education.

Given the choices of lead, follow, or get out of the way, Mayor Kenney opted to lead — by imposing a "soda tax" to fund education needs. But the General Assembly can't get out of the way.

State Rep. Mark Mustio, an Allegheny County Republican, on Monday introduced legislation to kill the tax, a 1.5-cent-per-ounce levy on most sugary and diet beverages sold in the city. The tax raised nearly $79 million in the first 12 months of collection to fund pre-K education, community schools, parks, recreation centers, and libraries.

Mustio calls those goals "laudable," but said he doesn't "want government to go in and think of creative ways to grab money."

Speaking of creative, Mustio's legislation goes further with "preemption," banning any municipal taxes statewide on food, beverages, the containers they come in, and the ways they are delivered.

Mustio repeats complaints from the soda industry about the tax's impact on poor families, grocery stores, and jobs in the soda industry.

But Kenney's administration issued a report Wednesday offering "empirical proof that the sectors most directly affected by the tax are seeing steady employment, if not growth."

If Mustio finds the soda-tax goals laudable, the Assembly could always come up with a different way to pay for pre-K, community schools, and Philadelphia's other plans. But Mustio told us that is "not the issue I'm working on."

The legislation has momentum, according to State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Committee. Mustio's bill could come up for a hearing and a vote in that committee as soon as April 30.

That's swift action for a legislative body not exactly known for alacrity.

Thomas is no fan of the soda tax. He would support killing the tax if the state offered a new way to pay for pre-K. But that's not part of the conversation, Thomas said, so he can't support Mustio's bill

While Mustio's legislation moves, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on May 15 in a legal challenge brought by the American Beverage Association, which contends the soda tax is an illegal double levy because consumers already pay a sales tax on beverages.

That argument was rejected in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court in December 2016 and rejected again in June on appeal to Commonwealth Court.

The ABA spent more than $15 million in 2016 and 2017 lobbying in Philadelphia against the soda tax.

A spokesman for Kenney said Mustio and his co-sponsors "are attacking the rights of local communities to solve their own problems" and "catering to the whims of the multimillion-dollar beverage industry."

The state's oversight of the Philadelphia School District ends June 30. A local school board will spend money the city is dedicating to education after years of waiting for the state to step up. The city is taking the lead there, just as with pre-K.

If the General Assembly can't lead, it should at least stay out of the way.

Gov. Wolf should veto any legislation preventing Philadelphia or any other city in the state from creative ways of raising money it's not getting from the state.