Philly Council advances 1.5 cents-per-ounce soda tax

Supporters and foes of the drink tax in Philadelphia fill Council Chambers during a Wednesday hearing at City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Supporters and foes of the drink tax in Philadelphia fill Council Chambers during a Wednesday hearing at City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A Philadelphia City Council committee has voted to approve an amended version of a soda tax proposal that would set a tax on sugary drinks as well as diet beverages.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s initial proposal was for a 3-cent tax on sugary beverages only, but he lacked the votes to secure it.

If the deal is approved June 16, the city will tax sugary beverages and diet sodas at 1.5 cents an ounce. 

During a hearing that stretched on for hours Wednesday, Councilman Bill Greenlee criticized the Kenney administration — which had proposed the tax for expanded pre-K and upgrades to city libraries and recreation centers — over a newly announced plan to use part of the money to bolster the city budget.

“I hope in the future we can get full disclosure,” Greenlee said. “Because we heard it was all about the kids, all about the kids, and sometime this afternoon, we heard it’s also about the fund balance.”

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said, although a deal on the tax is in place, the Council has retained some control by holding off on approving bills on how to spend expected revenue from the soda tax.

“That money will now stay in the general fund, which means the administration will have to come back with full-fledged plans for pre-K community schools and the rebuild  before they can move forward with the expenditures,” said Quiñones-Sánchez.

The tax was fiercely opposed by the American Beverage Association, which spent millions on an ad campaign against the levy.

Harold Honigman, a soda and beverage bottler, said the tax will hurt retailers.

“I guess I’m very disappointed that so many families, so many stores could be damaged and put out of business,” he said after the vote.

Earlier, Wil Gonzalez an activist from the city’s Latino community, said a soda tax would be preferable to a container tax, another option that had been discussed by Council members.

“There is no escaping the beverage container tax if you drink water, natural juices or diet soda,” he said. “The beverage tax only places a tax on certain drinks, many of which have no nutritional value and are the leading cause of diabetes or obesity among low-income people.”

Hundreds of people showed up Wednesday for a public hearing before the vote. Opponents shouted “No new tax!” Supporters countered with “Kids can’t wait.”

It’s estimated the tax could generate up to $50 million in its first year.

There was no roll call vote to give a full accounting of who was for or against the deal; that will come when council members vote on the final budget June 16.


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