Will the fizz go out of the new effort to repeal Philly’s soda tax?

Councilmember David Oh is facing opposition; the tax has generated $333M since 2017

By: - February 3, 2022 11:47 am

By Brian Saunders

PHILADELPHIA — Councilmember David Oh introduced legislation last week to repeal the 2016 sugary drink tax, often referred to as the “soda tax.”

Oh, who was one of four councilmembers who voted against the 1.5-cents-per-ounce has maintained that back then, the money was in the budget to fund programs such as universal pre-kindergarten and Rebuild, which upgrades the city’s libraries, recreation centers, parks, and playgrounds.

“At the time, it was an unnecessary tax because we had the money in the budget to fund pre-k and Rebuild,” Oh said. “And we would have had enough money in the budget.”

Oh said $110 million in funding was available, which could have been allocated to fund educational advancement and Rebuild projects.

The tax, which Oh said would be paid heavily by poor people was unfair.

Report: Philly Mayor Kenney’s office bottled up $134.6M in unspent soda tax revenue

“I don’t actually agree with the idea that without this additional tax, the city cannot provide good recreation centers, clean parks, and a pre-K program,” Oh said. “I voted against the budget because I had done an amendment to the budget to take $110 million and put into the pre-K and Rebuild that was defeated, and therefore I did not vote for the budget.”

Although Oh maintains that the tax preys on the poor, a study was done in 2020 by Drexel University researchers who said Philadelphians were drinking just three fewer sugary drinks. Of those surveyed, just 39% said they purchased fewer drinks.

Since the initial legislation was passed, there have been four new councilmembers: Isaiah Thomas, Kendra Brooks, Katherine Gilmore Richardson and Jamie Gauthier.

Gauthier said she would not be voting to repeal the tax.

“I will not be voting to repeal the soda tax,” Gauthier said. “The tax is an important funding source for programs critical to neighborhood health, including universal pre-K and long-awaited capital improvements to parks, recreation centers, and libraries.”

Gauthier said you couldn’t claim to support the efforts the money is used for but want to remove the mechanism that provides them.

Brooks said she strongly opposes the bill to repeal the soda tax without a clear alternative that provides the tax’s funding.

“Nearly two years into the pandemic, the suffering of our communities is visceral,” Brooks said. “My neighbors are experiencing high poverty rates, their kids are falling behind in school, and the constant threat of gun violence looms large. To address these issues, we need to aggressively expand funding streams for the city services that keep our constituents safe, not cut them. In this moment, to attempt to repeal the soda tax without a plan to replace that funding is simply unconscionable.”

Study: Philly shoppers bear brunt of soda tax, buy fewer sweetened drinks

Thomas said he had not had time to explore Oh’s proposal because he only saw it when it was introduced.

“There wasn’t time to explore his proposal or understand how his plan will fund pre-K and other critical services. However, I welcome conversations on the issue,” Thomas said.

A bill that received 76% of the vote in favor of passing will be hard to repeal, especially with the backing of the newer council members.

Not to mention the tax has generated $333 million in funding since the 2017 fiscal year.

However, data collected from the City Controller’s office shows 54% ($179 million) of the funding is sitting in a general fund. Oh said that while circumstances are different from 2016 when there was money available to put towards these programs, a bad tax is not the answer.

“Are we in the same position as 2016? No, we’re not. But at the same time, one of the problems I see is that it doesn’t justify a bad tax. It doesn’t justify a tax upon the poor to be used,” he said.

Brian Saunders is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared

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