Byko: On soda tax, Kenney's the master distractor

Mike Inemer of the Finnegans Brigade pokes fun at Mayor Kenney’s soda tax in this year’s Mummers Parade.

So the soda tax is fizzling, and if you’re surprised, please raise your hand. I see no hands.

The city geniuses with the sharp pencils and graph paper figured sales would drop by 27 percent after the enormous tax was imposed Jan. 1 on soda -- plus many beverages that are not soda. Instead, the sales dropoff was up to 50 percent, according to distributors (http://www.philly.com/philly/news/Soda-companies-supermarkets-report-50-percent-losses-from-soda-tax.html).

Yes, the sales drop might be explained by people who had stocked up before the tax went into effect. It also could be explained by people who are buying their beverages  outside of Philadelphia. And if they cross into the burbs for soda, oh, well, they might as well buy their groceries there, too.

The truth is, sales were dropping even before the tax, part of a national trend away from soda.

Bob Brockway, CEO of Canada Dry Delaware Valley, was quoted in Julia Terruso’s story Wednesday as saying sales dropped 45 percent in Philadelphia and would lead to the loss of 35 jobs in the first week of March. I tried to find out if any jobs would be lost in Philadelphia, but Brockway was on vacation.

The ShopRite stores mentioned in the story are all in Philadelphia and they will kiss off 300 jobs. 

As bad as the tax is -- and the soda people painted it as plenty bad -- the rhetoric used by Mayor Kenney, and his lack of transparency, have been even worse.

From jump street, he basically crucified the soda industry.

The demagoguery started in his budget address, when Kenney said, "Big Soda charges our citizens, small businesses, and distributors much, much more than what it costs for them to make the soda."

Hello? That is a common business practice called "profit," something Kenney has never had to worry about in his career.

If prices are too high, people won’t buy, and that's what bottlers and distributors -- already experiencing falling sales -- feared would happen if the 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax was passed.

Kenney wasn’t through with the bottler bashing.  "There's a lot of money being made off the backs of poor people," and the industry has "been taxing the poor for generations,” he said. Actually, the city has been taxing poor people, and rich people, for generations. We can choose to not buy sodas. We cannot choose to not pay taxes.

The soda industry pays taxes, employs people, and delivers a product that people like, even if it is not “good” for them. Why does it deserve this vilification?

And Kenney isn’t letting up. “They disproportionately targeted low-income minorities for years,” he said, playing the race card. And he blames the industry, not the tax, for the loss of jobs: “They are actually willing to threaten working men and women’s jobs rather than marginally reduce their seven-figure bonuses.”

An email sent to the mayor’s office requesting information about who gets those bonuses, and how much they are, went unanswered.

I get a feeling that Kenney thinks as long as he keeps strafing “Big Soda,” people will be too entertained to ask what’s happening to the soda tax money.

Which brings us to the transparency issue.

Kenney framed the tax -- which he twice opposed as a councilman -- as funding for pre-K, plus upgrades to parks, rec centers, libraries, and schools. But pre-K was the main selling point.  

What was uncovered in the eleventh hour was that a whopping $24 million would go to the city fund balance. Bait and switch much?

You do the addition and subtraction and we now learn (http://www.philly.com/philly/news/politics/20160614_Drink_tax_proposal_had_some_sweetners.html) that less than half of the tax actually will go to fund pre-K.

Is anyone paying attention? Does anyone care?