Mayor Jim Kenney with Councilman Bobby Henon, left, and Council President Darrell Clarke.

Mayor Jim Kenney with Councilman Bobby Henon, left, and Council President Darrell Clarke.

PHL Council Flickr

Philly’s new mayor, his soda tax and the art of political horse-trading

The compromise between the mayor and council could be a good thing — at least they’re getting things done.

It was just before City Council members voted to preliminarily pass a soda tax last week when the city found out not all the money raised from it would go to funding programs like pre-K, community schools and parks and recreation. Some of it would go to padding the city’s dwindling fund balance.

And this week, another surprise: Now more of the revenue from the sugary drinks tax — expected to pass the full Council today — will go toward funding other programs members of City Council wanted funded as part of their support for the tax.

But despite outcry from some in the anti-soda tax camp, this type of horse-trading between a mayor and City Council isn’t uncommon. In fact, it’s expected. But it’s OK if you’re not used to seeing a mayor trading affirmation of the wants and needs of individual council members. Former Mayor Michael Nutter wasn’t exactly known for this toward the end of his tenure; and you’re not seeing too much of this mirrored by Gov. Tom Wolf and the Harrisburg legislature, either.

“Good relationships are absolutely important, and Jim Kenney has showed that good relationships can get the job done,” former Councilman Frank Rizzo, Jr. said. “And he got it done with the soda tax.”

The soda tax deal

When the Kenney administration was working to sell the public on the benefits of instituting a sugary drinks tax, it was all about the kids and, largely, funding pre-K. Since then, the 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax that will raise about $90 million annually evolved into a deal that includes some $41 million over the first five years going to pad the city’s fund balance.

In a story earlier this week, The Inquirer broke down where other soda tax funds will be spent:

  • $6.7 million for employee benefits, primarily for disability settlements.
  • $4.4 million for programs within Health and Human Services, including the Philadelphia Nursing Home, youth homelessness, and feeding the homeless.
  • $1.6 million to cover the costs of resentencings for about 300 juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole, a penalty ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • $1 million to Community College of Philadelphia.

A coalition of opponents to the soda tax largely funded by the American Beverage Association are calling the last-minute revelations that not all the tax revenue would go to the mayor’s initiatives a “bait-and-switch.”

However, it’s well-known in City Hall circles administrations expect Council members to request funding for their priorities throughout the budget hearing process, and there’s money there to fulfill those requests. That expectation is why Kenney was able to bring councilmembers who were once against the tax onto his side — even without the explicit support of Council President Darrell Clarke.

John Hawkins, a lobbyist at S.R. Wodjak and Associates and a former aide to Kenney, said using money from the sugary drinks tax to fund other programs like benefits and other city programs isn’t surprising.

“In the 20 years I’ve been watching City Hall, every single budget, there are always last-minute add-ons requested by council members,” he said. “It’s expected by the folks in the administration.”

Sam Katz, a former mayoral candidate and a close watcher of City Hall, said it’s the absence of this type of “horse-trading” that has rendered the state and national governments more ineffective than Philadelphia’s local lawmakers.

“[Kenney] knew from the outset that he wasn’t going to get three cents, and he didn’t need it,” Katz said. “So that was a good offering position to enable him to compromise down.”

A different kind of Mayor-Council relationship?

Nutter, despite having sat on Council before being elected mayor, wasn’t known for having a transactional relationship with Council that allowed the two branches of government to trade off on supporting each other’s priorities.

Then-Councilman Jim Kenney had a strained relationship with Nutter. They were former allies and had a falling out at some point during Nutter’s first term and later argued over issues like decriminalizing marijuana (Kenney was for, Nutter was apprehensive).

“In order to be a successful mayor, you need to be a very good point guard,” Kenney said in a January 2015 Philadelphia Magazine story about Nutter. “Michael’s more adept at being a Wimbledon Centre Court singles tennis player.”

And if the first five months of Kenney’s tenure is any indication, he’s already been able to broker deals Nutter couldn’t. The former mayor introduced a soda tax twice while in office and it was shot down both times. The second time, he even framed it as a moneymaker instead of a way to fight obesity — as Kenney has done this time around — and it still failed. One person who wanted to defeat the levy told Philly Mag: “At the end of the day, we won because people don’t like Nutter.”

Even on smaller issues, Council’s praised the ease of working with Kenney’s administration.

“This is not a shot at the previous administration,” Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. said, “but I asked for cameras at 27th and Allegheny and it took two years to get them. I asked for cameras at 60th to 63rd from Market to Race and it took two weeks (for Kenney).”

Rizzo said there was a reason the relationship between Nutter and Council “didn’t work” at the end, and it was simply because Nutter stuck to his convictions.

“Michael Nutter is the kind of guy that has, at least as far as I could see, a lot of principle,” he said. “There are sometimes requests that come from council members that are of political nature. And if he didn’t think it was good for Philadelphia, he’d say no. And people just don’t like no.”

But for Nutter, perhaps his largest fight with City Council and Clarke was over the mayor’s proposed sale of Philadelphia Gas Works, a city-operated utility that Nutter wanted to sell off.

His proposal failed after he couldn’t get one council member to introduce his signature piece of legislation.

“I never got the impression that he was really serious about the business of doing your Council politics,” former Mayor John Street said in an interview with Billy Penn in October. “It’s an art form. It’s important. You can’t take it for granted. These people all have ideas about how things should go, and they’re respected…I think they felt disrespected.”

It’s no secret Kenney attempted to be the anti-Nutter while running. He emphasized everything Nutter didn’t on the campaign trail and promised his relationship with Council wouldn’t sputter throughout his tenure in the mayor’s office.

Only time will tell if his relationship with Council stands. He’s still in the first six months of his term — no doubt the honeymoon phase. Katz said having the soda tax deal as his first big win will put him in a powerful position moving forward in terms of his relationship with individual council members who trust he’ll deliver on their priorities, too.

“He didn’t lecture City Council, he didn’t threaten anybody,” he said. “That was not — at least by the middle or end of the Nutter administration — his style. I think Kenney saw that as a councilman and said, ‘I’m not going to do things that way.’”

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