For years, a chorus of business leaders and policy wonks has been singing the same tune: The business and wage taxes in Philadelphia are too high, and they drive jobs to the suburbs.
It’s been a loud, harmonious chorus. It’s rare to find someone who disagrees. Opinions diverge, though, when the conversation turns to solutions. City government can’t easily lower business taxes, not with a huge hole in the pension fund and a school district perpetually starved for every dime of revenue it can get. And City Council is loath to again raise taxes on homeowners, an entrenched constituency that feels like the go-to source for revenue every time the city needs more cash.
But a remarkable thing happened earlier this month. State lawmakers took the first step toward allowing Philly to raise taxes on commercial properties without having to raise taxes on residential properties, too, as long as it matches the increase with a reduction in the wage and business taxes. It would be the first hole in the part of the state constitution known as the “uniformity clause,” which requires Pennsylvania cities to tax all real estate properties at the same rate. Read more »
Photo | Jim Kenney
Mayor Jim Kenney hosted a press conference on Monday to announce the first nine community schools, which the city hopes to transform from education-only facilities to multipurpose community services centers over the course of the next year.
The first nine schools are located in South, Southwest, North, and Northwest Philly. The Mayor’s Office of Education selected the first cohort of schools from a number of applications, using input from residents at community meetings and neighborhood health and safety data. Five of the schools in the first round exceed the citywide rates for child poverty, asthma, obesity, and diabetes. Five schools are also located in police districts with the highest rates of gun violence and four schools have 20 percent or more ESL students. Read more »
Clockwise: Union leader John Dougherty, Mayor Jim Kenney, Council President Darrell Clarke and soda mogul Harold Honickman. | Photos by Jeff Fusco, iStock.com and HughE Dillon
One of the longest and most expensive political wars in recent Philadelphia history has come to an end. On Thursday, City Council voted 13-4 to enact a tax on sugary drinks and diet sodas. The American Beverage Association has spent nearly $5 million since March to flood the airwaves with anti-soda tax ads. But even that doesn’t capture the full scope of the soda industry group’s spending: It worked diligently to fight off a soda tax since 2010 — when former Mayor Michael Nutter first floated the idea — by lobbying Council members and donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to political campaigns.
This year, though, the soda lobby’s deep pockets weren’t enough to kill Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed tax. In the end, only Democrat Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Republicans David Oh, Brian O’Neill and Al Taubenberger voted against the 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax on Thursday.
Philadelphia is the biggest city in the United States to approve a soda tax. The only other city in the country with a sugary drinks tax is Berkeley, California. Here, the levy will fund expanded pre-K, community schools, and an overhaul of the parks system, among other things. These are the biggest winners and losers in the city’s years-long battle over the soda tax:
1. Jim Kenney
This is a career-defining victory for Kenney. The mayor took on one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States and won, which has boosted his national profile and proven that he has a critical number of allies on City Council. The fact that the soda tax will help pay for the renovation of the city’s parks, libraries and recreation centers — and that the administration will determine how to divvy up that spending with district Council members — means that Kenney could potentially have favors to give out for years to come. But how much political capital has the mayor spent in the fight over the soda tax? We may soon find out: District Council 33’s labor contract expires on June 30th. The city’s blue-collar union was one of the many groups that supported the mayor’s soda tax, which could make it more difficult for him to negotiate with it.
Read more »
Photo by Jeff Fusco
For years, Philadelphians saw government dysfunction everywhere they looked. In City Hall, former Mayor Michael Nutter was so impotent that he couldn’t persuade a single Council member to introduce his bill to privatize Philadelphia Gas Works, let alone hold a hearing on the plan or (gasp!) approve it. And in Harrisburg, it took Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican legislature nine months to do their most basic job, i.e. agree on a budget.
It’s almost sadly poetic: The same place where American democracy was born was where you could best see it falling apart.
That’s why it’s so extraordinary that Philadelphia City Council is expected to pass a soda tax this week in order to fund Mayor Jim Kenney’s major initiatives: expanded pre-K, community schools, and an overhaul of the parks system. The soda industry spent nearly $3 million to defeat Kenney’s proposed levy on soda, flooding the airwaves with anti-tax ads and stuffing politicians’ campaign coffers with cash. Council President Darrell Clarke did Kenney no favors throughout the last few months, calling a 3-cents-per-ounce tax “ridiculous” and “divisive.” History was also working against Kenney: Council had twice crushed plans by Nutter to create a soda tax, and the beverage lobby had a 45-1 record of killing proposed soda taxes throughout the country.
But in the end, Council hammered out a landmark deal with the Kenney administration, giving preliminary approval to a 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks and diet soda. The fact that Kenney took on one of the strongest lobbies in the United States and won — and that the once all-powerful Clarke was, at times, working against him — shows that the mayor is a skilled politician who has enough votes on Council to pass ambitious, controversial proposals. This means Kenney could potentially get a lot done over the next three-and-a-half years. His victory also serves as a reminder of the unsavory things that are sometimes required to make government work: arm-twisting, special interests, and, of course, lots of money. Read more »
Images via iStock.com
In 1973, Arizona became the first state in America to restrict smoking in some public places. Four years later, Berkeley, Calif., became the first city in the nation to limit smoking in restaurants and other public places. Soon thereafter, the state of California, San Francisco and New York City enacted their own smoking bans. Fast-forward to today: Thirty states and 812 municipalities have smoke-free laws on the books.
A few decades from now, will we look back and remember Philadelphia as the city that paved the way for governments across the country to tax soda, much like Arizona and Berkeley did for smoking bans?
That’s what some sugary drinks tax advocates predict, and they make a pretty convincing case. Read more »
Mayor Jim Kenney’s push to pass a soda tax in Philadelphia, which could culminate next week with a City Council vote on a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks and diet beverages, was pitched from the outset as a way to raise money for popular new initiatives.
The city is hoping to expand pre-K, fix up parks and recreation centers, and establish community schools that double as neighborhood social-services hubs. All City Council members have been supportive of those goals, but what got some of them over the hump yesterday — when a majority of the committee voted in favor of the tax — was a different issue altogether. For a few members, including Council President Darrell Clarke, it came down to the city’s fund balance. Read more »
Photo by Jeff Fusco
Mayor Jim Kenney is now one step away from securing a major first-term victory, after a City Council committee voted Wednesday evening to approve a new tax on sugary drinks and diet sodas in order to fund his priorities: expanded pre-K, community schools, and an overhaul of the city’s parks, libraries and recreation centers.
Legislators must approve the tax for a second time next Thursday in order for it to become law, but it appears that they have reached a final deal. That puts Philadelphia on track to become the biggest city in the country to enact a soda tax.
Read more »
Clockwise from left: Mayor Jim Kenney, Council President Darrell Clarke, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and union leader John Dougherty.
For the third time in less than 10 years, Philadelphia City Council is reaching the end of a debate on whether to impose a tax on soda and other sugary drinks. Former Mayor Michael Nutter tried twice to get a soda tax approved, pitching it primarily as a public health initiative with the added benefit of raising revenue. Both times, after intense lobbying from the soda industry, Council rejected the proposal.
Now, Mayor Jim Kenney is hoping the third time’s the charm. In his first budget, Kenney is calling for a three-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks. That’s higher than the rates Nutter asked for, but Kenney, despite occasionally pointing out that the tax would help fight obesity, says that this proposal isn’t about public health. It’s about money, he says — money for programs that many Philadelphians and City Council members say they support.
Unless you’re a City Council member, you don’t get to vote on whether to approve, reject, or amend the soda tax. But that hasn’t stopped dozens of industry lobbyists and advocacy groups from trying to sway the outcome. We’re likely to find out where it will land Wednesday, when Council holds its last scheduled budget hearing before taking a summer recess. At the moment, lawmakers seem to be uniting around a compromise soda tax, but that could very well change as anti-tax advocates turn up the pressure today.
Not sure how to feel about it all? Here’s the deal. Read more »
City Council President Darrell Clarke is still trying to find the sweet spot when it comes to Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed three-cents-per-ounce soda tax.
The administration says that rate would bring in $95 million a year to fund expanded pre-K, community schools, and improvements on parks and recreation centers. On Wednesday, Clarke sent a memo to all members of City Council laying out a variety of alternatives to Kenney’s plan.
A one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages would raise $58 million a year, according to an analysis by technical staff who work for the Council President, and a one-point-five-cents-per-ounce tax would raise $77 million. Those numbers go up if diet sodas are thrown into the mix, the memo noted. The letter also spelled out how much revenue would be generated from different combinations of a soda tax and a container tax, which Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown introduced as an alternative last month. (She hates these cans!) Read more »
This vacant lot in the 1900 block of Brown Street is one of eight the city’s Land Bank is offering free to developers, in the process advancing Council President Darrell Clarke’s workforce housing initiative. | Google Maps image
Philadelphia’s Land Bank is continuing its slow march to functionality.
On Wednesday, the Land Bank released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for eight vacant properties near 19th and Brown streets in Francisville. It’s the first of several RFPs for “workforce housing” the Land Bank plans to send out this year, according to a press release.
The land would be given away for free or at a nominal cost to developers who will build houses and sell them for no more than $230,000 apiece. Buyers could make no more than 120 percent of Area Median Income, which is around $96,000 for a family of four. The average home sale price in Francisville is $325,000, according to the press release. Read more »