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City Council

Philadelphia Council President: ‘Divisive’ 3-cents soda tax isn’t happening

In a candid commentary, Darrell Clarke said Mayor Jim Kenney’s signature revenue proposal will not fly in its current form.

Update 5:20 p.m. 

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke says it’s time to come up with a new solution to fund pre-K — one that isn’t Mayor Jim Kenney’s three-cents-per-ounce soda tax plan.

“This has been one of the most divisive proposals since I’ve been here,” Clarke said during a budget hearing Wednesday, adding: “Everybody on this side of the table knows it’s not going to be a three-cents-per-ounce-tax.”

While most of Council agrees expanding pre-K offerings in the city is a good idea, they’re split over how to fund it. Kenney’s administration wants a three-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks. Some Council members might support that at a one or two-cents rate. Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown introduced a 15-cent tax on drink containers that would cover all drinks except baby formula and milk products.

Clarke spokeswoman Jane Roh said Clarke doesn’t question the need for universal pre-K but would like to see a plan by the administration to prioritize a program for lower income families.

“If I have a kid in pre-K,” Clarke said during the hearing, “I don’t think the taxpayers should pay for that. I think I should pay for that.”

Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., who’s in favor of Kenney’s proposal, responded to Clarke, saying he believes all children deserve access to pre-K, even if their parents can’t afford it.

No matter what Council decides to approve in terms of funding a pre-K program (and community schools… and an ailing pension fund…), Clarke’s right: This has been a divisive conversation. Clarke said it’s no secret a sugary drinks tax is regressive and will almost undoubtedly impact lower-income communities.

And in a public conversation with Kenney’s Deputy Mayor for Policy and Legislation Jim Engler during the hearing today, Clarke took the administration to task for not seriously considering other options for funding its priorities.

“I would ask the administration to think a little more seriously about a broader-based revenue stream,” he said. “We have to go after some kind of broader-based strategy than just taxing poor people.”

Kenney’s administration has contended that though soda consumption is higher among the poor, the sugary drinks tax is not “a tax on the poor.” Administration spokeswoman Lauren Hitt pointed to a study which found low-income consumers are more likely to avoid the tax altogether.

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