They trucked in the toddlers for the soda tax debate.
Amid a sea of signs held by supporters of the tax (“Thanks For Investing in Our Kids,” “Our kids are worth it”) and public denunciation of “Big Soda,” Mayor Jim Kenney’s team actually marched in a group of 3- and 4-year-olds for a “read in.” The children came to promote what his team called “free, universal pre-K” — funded through a tax on sodas, diet sodas and juices. The implication was clear: You vote against taxing drinks, you vote against the kids.
It worked. The tax, which Kenney himself opposed as a councilman, sailed through City Council. We became the first major municipality to tax beverages.
OK, thought many in Philadelphia. So it falls most heavily on the poor, who pay the highest proportion of their incomes for food and beverage. And it hurts small businesses whose customers have fled across county lines. And yes, at the eleventh hour the mayor announced that he’d be routing some tax money to his vaguely named “general fund,” rather than to pre-K seats or rec centers, which his team dismissed as a “last-minute detail.”
But many Philadelphians swallowed it – because it was for the kids.
Now, a year and a half later, and with more than $85 million skimmed from Philly wallets, we’ve learned via a report from City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart that most of the tax revenue (about 75 percent) has been routed to the mayor’s general fund, not to pre-K or Rebuild.
Where it will go from there is not clear. What is clear is that the kids were a convenient prop, and not much else.
The mayor’s team responded by criticizing Rhynhart and quibbling at the margins, attempting to add $6.6 million in expenditures marked as “other” to the pre-K and Rebuild ledgers. And what do those “other” expenditures include? Well, “costs to collect the soda tax revenue … and [for] the senior staff within the Mayor’s Office of Education.” Rest assured, Philadelphia — though the mayor is on track to miss the pre-K mark by tens of thousands of seats, his senior staff are getting paid.
Kenney insists that much of the money is set to go toward pre-K and Rebuild after the all-powerful Big Soda lobby is defeated in court. But, if that were true, why wouldn’t his administration create a reserve fund clearly earmarked for pre-K, as Rhynhart suggests? It’s simple: The mayor wants to spend our money on his own priorities.
City Council’s response – silence – shows a fundamental lack of accountability toward the tax they enacted. Democratic Councilwoman Helen Gym, our city’s self-appointed “tenacious public-education advocate,” misses no opportunity to rail against Harrisburg and demand more money for Philly schools. Yet she hasn’t taken notice that the soda tax, which she championed, isn’t delivering.
Democratic Councilman Bill Greenlee had previously questioned the inclusion of the general fund at all: “We heard it was all about the kids, all about the kids … [Now] it’s also about the fund balance.” Now would be a good time for him to follow up.
Now is a key time, in fact, to question why the proceeds of this tax aren’t supporting Philly children, because Kenney is proposing a nearly $1 billion — $1 billion! — tax hike, including a 6 percent increase in property taxes, supposedly for our city schools. Some on Council seem warm to the idea. Gym called Kenney’s budget proposal “bold.”
But if the mayor and Council didn’t deliver the promised pre-K seats with a much smaller revenue stream, why should Philadelphians fork over 10 times more of our money to them?
Put another way, if your neighbor begged you to help pay for his kids’ school supplies, and then you discovered he blew your money at SugarHouse casino, would you give him more if he came knocking next week? Or would you tell him to get his finances under control before he got another dime?
Sanity and fiscal restraint, concepts that normal Philadelphians live with every day, don’t register with our political class — which operates with “other people’s money” in mind. A soda tax, a liquor tax, a cigarette tax, more in property taxes … somehow the increased funding never fixes the problem.
The truth is that Kenney has no ideas for fixing our schools. He just wants more money, because that’s always his solution. But it’s not working, and nobody who represents us ever seems to ask why.
So when the mayor’s team sends in the sign-waving schoolchildren before his big property tax hike, be wary. With a mandate to support students and a significant amount of money to do so, the mayor has delivered nothing.
Albert Eisenberg is a Philadelphia-based political consultant. He is the former communications director of the Philadelphia Republican Party.