Soda tax debate bubbles over in Philadelphia

Philadelphia City Council normally doesn’t hold hearings on Fridays, but it had a doozy today. Council heard hours of debate on whether to impose a soda tax, or find other ways to bring in more money to support the city schools.

Council basically had the choice of two taxes: raising the school district portion of the real estate tax or create a soda tax.

School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman says the district needs money to preserve school bus service and avoid making classes much larger.   She says summer school could also be cut without extra cash.

“I am here today to plead with you to do no more harm by granting this district additional funds to restore some of the most dire cuts,” said Ackerman. “To this end, we the school district of Philadelphia request from the city council and the mayor additional funding of $75 to 110 million so that we can maintain some of the district’s most important programs and initiatives.

To pay for it, Mayor Nutter prefers taxing sugar-sweetened beverages. But the beverage industry says it will kill jobs for those who make, deliver or sell soda and other drinks. Daniel Grace of the Teamsters Local 830 represents delivery drivers.

“When the sales go down, sales determine how many people work there, when they go down we’re going to have loss of members and not only in my industry in the convenience stores, the supermarkets and everybody else that’s affected through the food chain,” said Grace.

For a 12 pack of soda the tax would be $2.88. City officials estimate sales of sugar-sweetened beverages would go down 20 percent if the tax were imposed. That accounts for people drinking less and crossing out of the city to buy a Coke.

Council President Anna Verna believes the tax is unfair and could fail if taken to court.

“I don’t know how this could ever be implemented if it’s sugar, it’s sugar and there are many other items that have sugar,” said Verna.

Last time Mayor Nutter tried for a soda tax, he emphasized it’s potential at improving people’s health. This time, City Finance Director Rob Dubow says the mayor is just trying to find money for the school district.

“Our overarching concern is the provision of sufficient revenue to the school district to be sure that critical programs and services can be maintained for the school district of Philadelphia,” said Dubow.

The mayor is already hiking parking meter rates raise $6 million for the district.

Note to readers: WHYY receives grant funds from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to produce content and hold forums related to healthy living.  The department is an advocate of the soda tax.

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