The presidential throw-down over Philly’s proposed soda tax: Does it matter?

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Three presidential candidates have weighed in on Philadelphia's proposed tax on sugary drinks. With cities in California considering a similar tax

Three presidential candidates have weighed in on Philadelphia's proposed tax on sugary drinks. With cities in California considering a similar tax

With the Pennsylvania primary over, the presidential candidates have gone, but while they were here, three of them weighed in on a very local issue.

With the Pennsylvania primary over, the presidential candidates have gone, but while they were here, three of them weighed in on a very local issue: Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s controversial proposal for a tax on soda and other sugary drinks.

The question is, does it matter for the debate going forward?

It all started last week when Democrat Hillary Clinton was speaking at a church in North Philadelphia about ending the “school-to-prison pipeline.” She segued into saying she’s “very supportive” of the proposed 3-cents-per-ounce tax on soda, iced teas and other sugary drinks.

“We need universal preschool, and, if that’s a way to do it, that’s how we should do it,” she said.

Later that day, her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders hit back, calling it a regressive tax.

“You don’t have to fund child care on the backs of the poorest people in this city,” said Sanders, who published an op-ed in Philadelphia Magazine on Sunday.  

Then, on Monday, during a diner dash in South Philadelphia, Republican candidate John Kasich added his two cents.

“Whenever you raise taxes, you basically hurt economic development,” he said, echoing the case being made by some local business owners and the Philadelphia Teamsters union.

Some Kasich supporters including Vince Minniti held up “no soda tax” signs as the candidate went from booth to booth, shaking hands at the Penrose Diner, surrounded by a gaggle of media from around the country and Canada.

Minniti, who said he has previously worked in the food and beverage industry, said Philadelphia’s debate should be a national issue “because the more taxes that we impose upon average citizens, the ramifications of lower jobs, less business.”

The candidates cut to the heart of the debate in Philadelphia — whether the tax would hurt the very people it’s designed to help who live in the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Fodder for the ad war?

So now that Clinton, Sanders and Kasich have moved on to other states, will this episode be just a blip on the political radar or something more?

One way these statements could live on is through TV ads.

“I can’t speak to the specifics of TV ads at this point,” said Kevin Feeley, a spokesman for Philadelphians For a Fair Future, the nonprofit promoting the tax. “All I can tell you is it’s a great boost to us and people should expect to hear more about it.”

Larry Ceisler, who represents opponents of the tax, said he appreciates the validation from Sanders, but doubts it’ll make a difference to Philadelphia City Council, which will actually decide on the proposal.

“The most junior member of City Council has more of a say on this issue than either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, and there’s really nothing that they said in those statements that either the voters or City Council has not heard from either side of this issue,” he said.

Ceisler doesn’t think it will make a big difference outside the city either.

But Philadelphia isn’t the only place in the country considering such a tax.

Word of the Clinton-Sanders throw-down quickly spread to people including Larry Tramutola, a consultant in California who’s working to pass soda taxes in San Francisco and Oakland — two cities known for their large, progressive voting bases. And unlike Philadelphia, the fate of those initiatives will ultimately be in the hands of voters, not city council members.

When Tramutola heard about the presidential dust-up in Philly, he was a little concerned.

“Having the industry now being able to use Bernie Sanders words for their own behalf could potentially be a problem,” he said. “Now will it be a problem? I don’t know, but there is that potential.”

With the California primary coming up in June, there’s a chance the issue could come up in the national media again, right around the time Philadelphia City Council is expected to vote.

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