Where Does Darrell Clarke Stand on the Soda Tax? And Does it Matter?

The Council President has said he's concerned about the tax proposal, but would he oppose it outright?

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Before City Council’s weekly meeting last Thursday, Council President Darrell Clarke apparently told Newsworks that he thought a three-cents-per-ounce tax on soda — which Mayor Jim Kenney has proposed as a revenue source for providing pre-kindergarten programs and making improvements to parks and rec centers — was too high. According to the word bouncing around the Council caucus room, Clarke had been definitive about that for the first time. A firm “no” on three cents. 

Some other reporters and I wanted to hear it for ourselves, but by the time we caught up with Clarke after the Council meeting, he was sounding more cryptic and non-committal — a not-uncommon mode for the Council President. 

He was concerned about a three-cent tax, but maybe not opposed to it. It seemed a little high. It could have a significant impact on small businesses. But, even though three Council members had come out against the tax the day before, he said we shouldn’t make too much of that. Where did he stand at the moment, I wanted to know.

“You know I don’t ever talk about what my position is until it’s time for me to vote,” Clarke said.

I do know that! I don’t know exactly how the soda-tax vote will play out, though, and I don’t see any good reason to guess. But Clarke’s vote matters. He arguably wielded more power than former Mayor Nutter over the last few years, and he’s exhibited significant control over how Council behaves in the past. Even with a new mayor in office, he still holds a strong sway over some Council members. He’s in as good a position as anyone to help Kenney realize his big campaign promises early in his tenure — or to deny him a victory.

Here are some things to consider about where Clarke might land on the soda-tax proposal.

Clarke Likes Unanimity

Since becoming Council President in 2012, Clarke has prided himself on getting a lot of 17-0 votes. He’s made repeated public statements to that effect, and he seems to have a genuine interest in running a unified City Council. If it comes time to vote on the soda tax proposal and the count looks close, Clarke may try to get as big a majority as he can — either for or against.

His Power Is Diminished — At the Moment

Clarke was at his most powerful when he successfully kept former Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposal to sell the Philadelphia Gas Works from even being introduced in Council. Nutter was already unpopular with the political class by that point in his tenure, and other Council members didn’t know whether Clarke was going to run to succeed him.

But now there’s a new mayor, and he’s still in the honeymoon phase (kind of). Most Council members have no reason to potentially sour their relationship with the Administration this early on. And while they may not like to approve another tax, they sure don’t want to take a strong stand against the popular Democratic causes of Pre-K and parks. They have as much to gain by allying with the Mayor as they do by allying with the Council President. That wasn’t the case toward the end of the Nutter years.

Opposing Kenney Could Hurt Clarke

Clarke has something to lose if he stands in Kenney’s way. Some of the proceeds from the soda tax would be redirected toward Clarke’s proposal to create 10,000 new green jobs in Philadelphia, for example. He also doesn’t gain as much by opposing Kenney as he could have by opposing Nutter; he’s not thinking about running for mayor at the moment, for example, so taking on the sitting mayor doesn’t do as much for him.

But Voting for the Tax Could Hurt Clarke, Too

It’s true that the soda tax is regressive, though, and Clarke represents a poor district. It would have a greater impact on those constituents than on his wealthier ones. His spokesperson, Jane Roh, has been periodically Tweeting criticisms of soda taxes, though stopping short of signaling that Clarke would vote against it.

Opposing the Tax Would Be a Test of Clarke’s Power

Say Clarke does decide to oppose the soda tax outright. Then it’s a showdown over whether he or Kenney can whip more votes on Council. That could have long-lasting political ramifications, and Clarke may not want to put his clout to the test at this point. Plus, Council’s new majority leader, Bobby Henon, is pretty firmly in favor of the soda tax, according to City Hall sources.

The Administration May Expect Council to Lower the Rate

If Council decides three cents is too high a rate — and its own analysis of the Administration’s numbers suggests a lower rate could actually bring in more revenue — it could always vote instead for a two-cent or one-cent tax. The Administration has probably even anticipated that it would. Clarke and the rest of the Council may have a greater incentive to reduce the proposed tax-rate and still give the mayor most of the money he wants to fund his initiatives, which, again, are popular on Council.

Follow @JaredBrey on Twitter.