The Soda Tax Battle’s Biggest Winners and Losers

Clockwise: Union leader John Dougherty, Mayor Jim Kenney, Council President Darrell Clarke and soda mogul Harold Honickman. | Photos by Jeff Fusco, and HughE Dillon

Clockwise: Union leader John Dougherty, Mayor Jim Kenney, Council President Darrell Clarke and soda mogul Harold Honickman. | Photos by Jeff Fusco, 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:

The Winners

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.
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Beverage Lobby Spends Whopping $700K on Last-Minute Ad Blitz Against Soda Tax

Screenshot of the American Beverage Association ad

Screenshot of the new American Beverage Association ad

City Council is expected to approve a tax on sugary drinks and diet beverages Thursday, making Philadelphia the biggest city in the country with a soda tax and giving Mayor Jim Kenney a major first-term victory. Lawmakers preliminarily approved the tax last week; since then, Council President Darrell Clarke and others have penned an op-ed in favor of the levy.

In other words, the fight appears to be done. Well-done. If the soda tax battle were a burger, it would be overcooked. But that isn’t stopping the soda industry from spending boatloads of cash.

The American Beverage Association is paying $700,000 to flood the airwaves with a new anti-soda tax advertisement between June 14th and June 16th. That’s an enormous sum for such a short period of time. For the sake of comparison, the ABA has spent a total of $4.9 million on ads since March (including this one), and the pro-tax coalition Philadelphians for a Fair Future has spent $1.4 million on commercials. Read more »

Kudos to City Council for Standing Up to the Powerful Soda Lobby

Rev. X

Rev. James Hall Jr. | Photo via Philadelphians for a Fair Future

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from guest writer Rev. James Hall Jr. Hall is the pastor of Triumph Baptist Church in Germantown.)

Philadelphia City Council said yes to historic, heroic legislation last week. Three- and four-year-olds who have been on wait lists will now have access to quality pre-K. Children who go to school too hungry or traumatized by neighborhood violence to learn will now have access to resources right in their community school. Neighborhood libraries, rec centers and parks that have long suffered from neglect will now be rebuilt. However, many Philadelphians have not heard about these programs that will be supported by the soda tax because the same soda industry lobbyists who have been lying to residents for months with claims of “grocery taxes” have only ramped up their deceitful tactics in recent days. Read more »

ACLU: Philly Is Setting Itself Up for Conflict With DNC Protesters

Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Richard Ross. Photo | Jeff Fusco

Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Richard Ross. | Photo by Jeff Fusco

The ACLU of Pennsylvania faxed a letter to Mayor Jim Kenney this morning raising questions about the city’s stance on protests during the Democratic National Convention. The letter claims that the city has taken positions that may violate protesters’ First Amendment rights during the convention, despite promises made earlier to the group that dissent would be tolerated.

“We are deeply troubled by recent statements made by your attorneys that seem to be setting the city up for conflict with protesters during the Democratic National Convention,” wrote the Pennsylvania ACLU’s executive director Reggie Shuford and deputy legal director Mary Catherine Roper. “We are concerned that the city law department seems to have walked back several statements made earlier about how the city would accommodate protest during the DNC. The new positions articulated by the law department raise serious First Amendment issues.” Read more »

How Jim Kenney’s Big Soda Tax Victory Is Upending City Hall

Photo by Jeff Fusco

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 »

13 Things You Might Not Know About Octavius Catto

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Temple University’s Urban Archives, via Wikimedia Commons

Mayor Jim Kenney just unveiled the design for a long-planned memorial to Octavius V. Catto, the charismatic black educator, orator, civil rights activist and baseball player who was shot to death outside his home at 8th and Lombard Street during the bitterly contested mayoral election of 1871. Here are some highlights of the life of one of the city’s most remarkable citizens, from the Temple University Press book Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, by Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin. Read more »

Will Philly’s Soda Tax Make Coca-Cola the Next Philip Morris?


Images via

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 »

Council Demanding Answers on Use of Soda Tax Funds


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 »

Philly Soda Tax Gets Thumbs-Up From Council

Photo by Jeff Fusco

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.
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