Pre-K commission votes to support soda tax

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Large soda bottles are seen in a bodega in Chinatown in March 2013 in New York City.

The city's commission on universal pre-K voted Wednesday to support a 3-cents-an-ounce tax on sugary drinks to fund education for 3- and 4-year-olds, as part of a final report due to the mayor Friday.

The vote serves as an endorsement of the very tax Mayor Kenney has proposed for the same purpose.

While the vote was expected - some commission members were appointed by Kenney, and most are advocates of early childhood education - it was not easy or unanimous.

The three-hour meeting included spirited, and at times tense, debate over whether it was the commission's role to recommend a sole funding stream.

In the end, 13 commissioners voted to recommend the tax. Three, including City Council members Jannie L. Blackwell and Blondell Reynolds Brown, voted against it. Blackwell and Reynolds Brown favored listing several funding options in the report and letting Council decide. A representative from the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce abstained.

The report now goes to the mayor.

In weekly commission meetings for the past month, the sugary-drinks tax has been the elephant in the room.

When it came time to vote on it Wednesday, Catherine Blunt, a former high school principal, said the discussion about funding should be between the mayor and Council.

"There is tension between mayor and Council on the sugary-drinks tax," Blunt said. "There's a need for them to come together. I don't want the commission to be used as leverage between mayor and Council."

Others on the commission said not recommending the levy could kill the tax.

"I believe we should take a stand on it, because it's very difficult for Council to vote for something when the very people at this table aren't ready to stick their neck out for it," said Donna Cooper, executive director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

Anne Gemmell, the director of Kenney's prekindergarten effort, said not recommending the tax could embolden the antitax coalition.

"Right now, the opposition is winning," Gemmell said. "And if this commission does not stick out their neck, they will spend money to hold up our neutrality against this effort."

The commission's report includes a breakdown of other potential revenue sources that had not been recommended.

With the annual cost of pre-K pegged at $60 million, the commission considered other taxes to reach that figure. It concluded the real estate tax would need to increase by 5 percent to raise that revenue. If sales tax was used, it would require a 20 percent hike. The liquor-by-the-drink tax would need to go up 108 percent.

The city parking tax would need to increase by 63 percent and the use and occupancy tax would need to increase by 46 percent, the report says.

The report notes that a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages would bring in $57.8 million annually, just shy of what Kenney says he needs for pre-K.

Kenney has said he wants the higher rate to additionally fund community schools and the renovation of parks and recreation centers.

The commission's report does not recommend an income cap for families participating - an issue several Council members raised in hearings last week.

It does suggest prioritizing the highest-need children by rolling pre-K out in the first two years only in communities living below 300 percent of the federal poverty line.

Neither the commission's plan nor the mayor's is universal.

At the end of five years, about 8,000 3- and 4-year-olds would still be without pre-K. But the program would have added 10,000 seats, moving the city toward its goal of complete coverage.

jterruso@phillynews.com

215-854-5506 @juliaterruso