Most Philly Voters Support a Soda Tax, Says Kenney Poll*

*The poll asked voters last fall if they would endorse a soda tax to fill a budget gap. Still, does this mean the mayor has a head start in the public debate?

Fifty-seven percent of Philadelphia voters supported a soda tax last fall, according to a poll conducted for Jim Kenney’s mayoral campaign at the time. Forty percent opposed it.

That gives Kenney a head start in the public debate over the soda tax, right? Well, maybe. There are a few caveats to the results. For one thing, Kenney’s pollster asked voters whether they would back the tax as a way to reduce a financial shortfall in the school district. Earlier this month, Kenney proposed a soda tax to raise money for new initiatives, including universal pre-K, community schools and a major parks renovation — not to plug an education budget gap.

In other words, voters may respond very differently if they were asked today whether they endorse Kenney’s soda tax. But in what way? Would they turn their back on the tax, since Kenney didn’t propose it to fix a crisis? Or would they actually like it more, since Kenney wants to use it to pay for new, shiny programs?

Unsurprisingly, Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt argues that the latter is true. “Filling a budget hole has the connotation of financial mismanagement,” she says. “The programs we’re proposing to fund are also extremely popular.”

Also unsurprisingly, the soda industry disagrees with her. “The opposite is true. Voters are more likely to fix a shortfall than approve new spending,” says David Binder, a pollster working for the American Beverage Association.

It’s impossible to know who’s right at the moment. But we will likely figure that out soon: Binder said he is currently polling Philadelphians on the soda tax, and Kenney’s pro-tax coalition said it will conduct a survey sometime in the next few weeks.

It’s also worth noting the exact wording used by the Kenney’s polling firm. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research asked if respondents would support “creating a tax on high-calorie, sugary beverages” in order to fill the school district’s budget hole. Kenney’s tax would be levied on all beverages with added sugar, regardless of calorie content. Plus, the firm did not reference a specific tax rate — something that might change people’s attitudes. Kenney is proposing a three-cents-per-ounce levy, which the soda industry says would be the highest such tax in the nation.

Even with these caveats, the survey is pretty interesting. It suggests that Philadelphians are warm to the concept, at least, of a soda tax. Yes, this is according to a poll paid for by Kenney, but Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research got a decent enough grade on FiveThirtyEight’s pollster ratings (a C+). Plus, an anti-obesity group commissioned a poll in 2010 that found similar levels of support for such a tax.

The fact that the Kenney campaign’s pollster gave me this survey also shows that the mayor is going to fight for what he wants in a much different way than his predecessor did.

Critics said former Mayor Michael Nutter simply expected City Council to support his ideas because they were, to him, so clearly right. (One of those ideas was a soda tax, which he failed to pass — twice.) That’s an exaggeration, but there’s some truth to it. Kenney, on the other hand, almost seems to be looking to win the Soda Tax War in the same way you win a mayoral election: by building a broad coalition, and using polls to build momentum. Is that a winning strategy for getting Council on your side, though? We’ll find out.

But back to the details of the poll. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research questioned 501 likely voters from October 19th to 22nd, including Democrats, Republicans and Independents. It reached them on both land lines and cell phones. The margin of error is plus or minus four percentage points, according to the firm.

White and black respondents had roughly the same of the opinion of the soda tax. Fifty-six percent of white voters supported it, while 42 percent were opposed to it. The same percentage of black voters — 56 percent — endorsed it; 39 percent were against it.

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research also asked voters about other potential ways to fill the school district’s budget gap. Wage and property tax hikes were very unpopular solutions: Only 30 percent of those surveyed said they would support a higher wage tax to plug a deficit; just 21 percent said they would back a higher property tax.

Interestingly, in the polling two possible education funding sources were more popular with voters than a soda tax: Sixty-eight percent of respondents said they would support “[making] universities and large nonprofits pay property taxes,” while 69 percent said they would endorse a higher liquor tax.

Why didn’t Kenney pursue those options to fund his big parks and pre-K plans? Hitt says the administration thinks PILOTs, or “payments in lieu of taxes” made by nonprofits, are worth pursuing — but not this year. She says it will take some time to negotiate the agreements with universities and organizations, and even then, she argues that PILOTs won’t bring in as much money much as the soda tax can.

As for the liquor tax, all of the funds from it are legally required to go to the school district. To use that money for anything else, Hitt says, the city would need to convince the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass enabling legislation.

That’s never a slam dunk. But then again, neither is persuading Council to pass a soda tax.

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