Election 2019

Kill the soda tax? Council candidates are sweet on repeal

The majority of Democratic challengers surveyed say they’d seek other ways to fund pre-K.

Shelves are stocked with sugary drinks at Cousins Grocery Store in Philadelphia.

Shelves are stocked with sugary drinks at Cousins Grocery Store in Philadelphia.

Anna Orso/Billy Penn
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The soda tax battles are revving back up. Legislation introduced in City Council this week would phase out the levy on sugary sweetened beverages — a signature piece of Mayor Kenney’s first term — and it already has notable support. The thinly detailed proposal wouldn’t kill the programs supported by the tax, but would rather look for alternate revenue streams.

Lawmakers better come up with something. Public approval of the pre-K, community schools and Rebuild initiatives remains strong, at least according to one soda industry-funded poll.

But support is waning for the tax itself, which critics say disproportionately impacts the city’s poorer minority residents — and candidates for City Council appear to have gotten the message.

Seven sitting councilmembers are backing the repeal bill so far, including prime sponsor Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez. All of them are up for re-election this year, and sources say the beverage industry, which has already sunk millions lobbying City Hall against the tax, now has its checkbook focused on the council races.

The lobbyists have a wide pool of candidates to court. Billy Penn reached out to more than 20 declared Council candidates to see who would support rolling back Kenney’s signature levy it if other funding sources were identified to pay for the beloved programs.

About half of them said they want to look for better options. Three said they unequivocally did not support the current repeal effort. The rest wavered or declined to comment.

Nine votes are needed for the bill to clear Council chambers, but the magic number is 12. Without a dozen votes, the mayor could override any legislative move to reverse to his signature achievement.  The road to 12 is nearly impossible in the bill’s current form, but the conversation around other funding sources will move forward, both in Council chambers and on the campaign trail in the coming months.

A separate resolution introduced this week calls for an independent impact study of the tax on city business — and look at other options, like a fee on single-use plastic bags.

“We look forward to hearing how they will explain how to fund these programs without the tax,” said Kevin Feeley, a spokesperson from Philadelphians for a Fair Future, which represents the interests supporting the soda tax.

Notably, few challengers have proposed their own alternatives.

District Council races

There are dozens of candidates running for City Council. This list focuses on Democratic challengers looking to unseat incumbents in the May primary.

District 1

Incumbent Mark Squilla

Dem challenger: Lou Lanni
Soda tax stance: Did not return request for comment.

District 2

Incumbent Kenyatta Johnson

Dem challenger: Lauren Vidas
Soda tax stance: “It’s a regressive and job killing tax, which is why I opposed it,” Vidas said. “However, without an identified alternative funding source for the programs, I would not vote to repeal.”

District 3

Incumbent Jannie Blackwell

Dem challenger: Jamie Gauthier
Soda tax stance: “I fully support investing more resources into our schools, parks, and public spaces. In fact, I’ve made this my life’s work.”

District 4

Incumbent Curtis Jones Jr. 

Dem challenger: Jeannette Geter
Soda tax stance: “I am in strong support of a repeal on the [soda tax] as long as there is a steady, stable funding stream for the aforementioned programs. The sweetened beverage tax has disproportionately affected our vulnerable residents, including seniors who rely on milk substitutes, and other beverages that are taxed under this bill. Our families struggling with food security are also at the mercy of corner stores, who have inflated the tax when passing it on to the consumers.”

Dem challenger: Ronald Adams
Soda tax stance: “The repeal bill doesn’t have as many details as I would like. But I do like the idea of phasing it out over a few years and giving city council the time to find alternative sources of funding for pre-k programs. Re-examining the tax abatement is a good place to start.”

District 5

Incumbent Darrell Clarke

Dem challenger: Omar Woodard (Update: Woodard dropped out of the race after this article ran.)
Soda tax stance: “Something as important to our city as Pre-K expansion should not be reliant on a rapidly declining revenue source,” Woodard said.
Dem challenger: Sheila Armstrong
Soda tax stance: Did not yet return request for comment.

District 6

Incumbent Bobby Henon

Dem challenger: None

District 7

Incumbent Quiñones-Sánchez

Dem challenger: State Rep. Angel Cruz
Soda tax stance: While Cruz did not return phone calls Thursday, he has been a vocal critic in Harrisburg, one of two Philly Democrats who asked the Pa. Supreme Court to strike down the tax last year.

District 8

Incumbent Cindy Bass

Dem challenger: Tonya Bah
Soda tax stance: “Increased Pre-K enrollment benefits kids and their parents, who are able to work while their children are in school. We can’t pull the rug out from under these families without a concrete plan to replace soda tax funding. [The repeal] bill doesn’t have the specifics needed, so I would not support it.”

At-Large Challengers

This list does not include incumbents.

Justin DiBerardinis (D)

Soda tax stance: “Justin does not support the repeal of the soda tax.”

Sherrie Cohen (D)

Soda tax stance: “I would only favor repeal of the soda tax-if there was an alternative funding source that was not based on a regressive tax and that funded pre-K, community schools and the Rebuild program at the same or greater level of financial support as the Mayor’s soda tax on sugary beverages.”

Fernando Treviño-Martinez (D)

Soda tax stance: “I would be open to repeal it if other funding sources were identified to pay for pre-K and Rebuild. I wouldn’t repeal it just to repeal it. I would find ways to implement it better and to ensure funding goes to where it was supposed to go.”

Eryn Santamoor (D)

Soda tax stance: Santamoor did not return request for comment

Isaiah Thomas (D)

Soda tax stance: Thomas’ campaign declined to comment

Erika Almiron (D)

Soda tax stance: Almiron supports the funded programs, but calls the tax regressive and opposes distributors passing the cost down to low-income consumers in the city.”It needs to be repealed only in the sense that we can figure out the best way for the corporations to take their responsibility,” she said.

Katherine Gilmore Richardson (D)

Soda tax stance: “I would not vote in favor of repealing the soda tax. I am for PHL Pre-K, Rebuild and community schools,” Gilmore Richardson said in a text.

Asa Khalif (D)

Soda tax stance: “I definitely would support a soda tax repeal, especially if funding can be found to make sure pre-K and schools in our community receive the money. The soda tax is disproportionately taxing to African Americans and poor people.”

Melissa Robins (D)

Soda tax stance: “The Sweetened Beverage Tax has to go because its cost falls disproportionately on Black and Brown Philadelphians. I support the programs it funds, but a regressive tax that’s focused on one industry and kills jobs is not good government. We need to ask more of our corporate citizens, both for-profit companies like Comcast, and non-profits like Penn, which is the biggest property owner in the city. These giant institutions earn millions in the city and benefit from the educational and quality of life improvements we all want. It’s not unreasonable to ask them to contribute more. I stand with Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez in favor of repealing the soda tax.”

Is your campaign missing from the list? Send your soda tax stance — and, if applicable, other ideas for funding — to max@billypenn.com.

Want some more? Explore other Election 2019 stories.

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