Bill to kill Philly soda tax introduced in Harrisburg

State Rep. Mark Mustio (R-Allegheny) has introduced a bill that would overturn Philadelphia's tax on soda and other sweetened drinks. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

State Rep. Mark Mustio (R-Allegheny) has introduced a bill that would overturn Philadelphia's tax on soda and other sweetened drinks. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Opponents of Philadelphia’s controversial sweetened beverage tax, stymied so far in their efforts to defeat the levy in court, are getting some support in Pennsylvania’s Legislature.

State Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Allegheny, has introduced a bill that would overturn the Philadelphia tax. It would also ban any city, township or borough in the state from imposing a tax on food, beverages (except for beer, wine, and spirits), or on any food or beverage container.

Mustio said he’d heard from soda tax opponents that grocery stores in Philadelphia are losing sales as customers head to the suburbs to buy their beverages.

“We’re seeing that those places where families buy their food and groceries are starting to lose money, and we don’t want them to close,” Mustio said in a phone interview.

Beverage tax opponents point to a study they commissioned that draws on proprietary data from affected businesses and concludes the tax has cost nearly 1,200 jobs in the city.

Philadelphia officials dispute the assertion that local stores are hurting.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s office Monday released information based on wage tax collections and unemployment claims suggesting that industries affected by the tax are not suffering.

The city passed the tax to fund subsidized pre-K, community schools, and other programs.

Opponents sued to have the tax overturned, charging it violated provisions of the state Constitution. That case is now before the state Supreme Court.

Can Philly tax itself?

Mike Dunn, spokesman for Mayor Jim Kenney, said in an interview there’s a broader problem with Mustio’s bill.

“This legislation would take away the ability of local governments to pass local ordinances to solve their own problems,” Dunn said in an interview. “The beverage tax was a way for us to raise local revenues to help in a number of ways, including funding free pre-K.”

This isn’t the first time members of the Republican-controlled Legislature have undertaken efforts to pre-empt the city from embracing certain policy objectives.

Legislation has appeared aimed at reversing city laws and policies on immigrant detention, paid sick leave for private-sector workers, and the practice of employers asking job applicants about their past salaries. None has become law.

Mustio said his bill is designed to protect taxpayers across the state from local officials who “get creative” in finding new taxes to impose. He insisted it’s not an anti-Philadelphia gesture.

“I’ve helped the city of Philadelphia on other votes, whether it’s funding for SEPTA, (imposing) the cigarette tax, and I’ve supported the current mayor and the previous mayor on issues,” Mustio said. “This isn’t a Philadelphia issue to me. It’s a consumer issue and a jobs issue.”

Mustio said he believes his bill has the support of legislative leaders and should pass quickly.

Would Gov. Tom Wolf sign it if it reaches his desk?

His spokesman J.J. Abbott told me the administration hasn’t finished reviewing the bill, but that “generally the governor has been opposed to these pre-emption bills that prevent local municipalities from enacting their own ordinances.”

He added that the governor is “a huge supporter” of early childhood education. If local authorities want to supplement the state’s efforts, Abbott said, the governor “doesn’t feel the Legislature should get in the way of that.”

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