Four hundred days after Philadelphia’s City Council passed the sweetened beverage tax, one of its most prominent champions has re-entered the fray.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is running a new, pro-tax advertisement on television and radio. The ads first aired last week in Philadelphia.
Through a representative, Bloomberg declined to say how much he was spending on the media buy.
Bloomberg contributed $1.6 million to Philadelphians for a Fair Future, the lobbying group formed to back the tax. This latest contribution was made independently.
So what does it all mean? Why is the billionaire back in Philadelphia’s political arena?
Bloomberg’s senior adviser, Howard Wolfson, offered only a statement.
It said, in part: “The soda industry has been advertising for months against the tax. Mike Bloomberg wanted to level the playing field and make sure both sides were heard.”
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who spearheaded support for the tax, expressed similar sentiments through a spokeswoman.
“We appreciate that they are trying to ensure both sides are heard,” wrote Lauren Hitt in an e-mail. “The beverage industry has kept up a relentless campaign against the tax since it passed, spending tens of millions of dollars on lawyers, lobbyists, radio and online ads — it’s really drowned out the transformative impact this tax has had on so many everyday Philadelphians through pre-K and community schools.”
Do ads signify faltering support?
Tax opponents, however, say the ad is evidence that Kenney and his allies are reeling from public backlash to the levy.
“These ads are a desperate attempt by Mayor Bloomberg to give cover to Mayor Kenney for his failed beverage tax,” said Anthony Campisi, spokesman for Ax the Philly Bev Tax Coalition. “No amount of advertising — no matter how good the ad is — can hide the fact that public opinion has swung pretty decisively against this tax.”
Campisi pointed to internal polling by the coalition showing that just over 60 percent of Philadelphians oppose the tax.
The immediate fate of Kenney’s signature political achievement isn’t in the hands of the public, however. It’s in the hands of the courts.
The American Beverage Association sued the city, alleging the tax violated state law. The city triumphed in two lower courts, but the ABA has appealed to the state Supreme Court. It’s not yet known whether the state’s high court will hear the case.
It is clear, though, that the political fight over this groundbreaking tax is far from over.
Even after the City Council debate ended, the Ax the Tax coalition continued to run advertisements through about mid-June, said Campisi. It has no current media buys, he said.
For about a month, Philly airwaves had been free of tax-related ads. But the controversy hardly ebbed. In late June, GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner attempted to hold a committee hearing in Philadelphia about the tax. Hecklers shouted him down, forcing lawmakers to postpone the meeting.
Bloomberg’s re-emergence figures only to energize the debate.
Focusing on the kids
The new television ad shows students graduating from pre-K, highlighting the early childhood expansion made possible by new tax revenue. Over shots of tiny caps and gowns, the narrator tells viewers that “a small soda tax made the big difference, paying for new classes, new teachers, and new hope for thousands of kids who weren’t able to afford the pre-K classes so crucial to their education.”
So far, beverage tax revenue has paid for 2,000 pre-K slots. The city first planned to add another 1,000 this fall, but has decided to hold pat while litigation against the tax works it way through the courts.
The ad’s arc follows a theme established early by Kenney, who focused on public programs sponsored by the tax rather than potential health benefits.
“That commercial made me tear up,” Kenney said Thursday while at an event for technology in public schools. “The Ax the Tax does not.”