Philly’s beverage tax challenge lands before panel of judges in Pittsburgh

 A beverage industry supporter protests the sweetened beverage tax outside of Philadelphia's City Hall. A panel of Commonwealth Court judges will hear arguments over the levy Wednesday in Pittsburgh. (NewsWorks file photo)

A beverage industry supporter protests the sweetened beverage tax outside of Philadelphia's City Hall. A panel of Commonwealth Court judges will hear arguments over the levy Wednesday in Pittsburgh. (NewsWorks file photo)

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s signature policy achievement, the city tax on sweetened drinks, will be back in court Wednesday.

City attorneys will defend the levy against claims by lawyers from the American Beverage Association that it is unconstitutional. 

In its first two months, the 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax has generated about $12 million.  That revenue has been earmarked for the Kenney administration’s major initiatives: expanded pre-K throughout the city and improvements to parks, recreation centers, and libraries.

But, if the beverage industry’s legal team wins, those plans could be curtailed or halted. 

Anthony Campisi, a spokesman with the soda industry group Ax the Bev Tax, said the tax is unconstitutional, and it is hurting small businesses.

“I just spoke to a woman who owns a small corner store in North Philadelphia, and she had to lay off one of her employees because sales dropped by about 40 percent,” Campisi said. “So, this is not sustainable for these families or these businesses.”

A lower court gave Kenney a win in December when it declared the tax legal, although Campisi said he thinks the appeals court will reverse that.

Asked whether it is just to tax soda and other sugary drinks, city solicitor Sozi Tulante has said, “I think the answer is fairly obviously — yes, because of all the health deficits associated with the sugary drinks.” 

Read more about the soda industry’s legal arguments here, and what the city has said in response here.

Both sides are debating the legality of the tax in front of the panel of judges on the Commonwealth Court, one level below the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The hearing will take place in Pittsburgh, because that is where the case landed on the court’s rotating schedule.

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