Three Council members come out against sugary-drinks tax

Members of Philadelphians Against the Grocery Tax hold a rally on the north side of City Hall.

City Council members have been slow to take sides in the fight over Mayor Kenney's proposed sugary-drinks tax.

But on Wednesday, some started showing allegiances.

Three Council members - Republican Al Taubenberger and Democrats Jannie L. Blackwell and Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez - took the stage at an antitax rally outside City Hall, pledging to vote against the measure.

"I am proud of you," Quiñones-Sánchez said, speaking from a stage decorated with a backdrop of sugary beverages. "You continue your fight. And let me tell you, Council can come up with other ways to do the right thing."

In front of her, several hundred protesters, including many who work at the city's bottling plants, packed the sidewalk, wearing matching white and orange shirts and waving signs that read, "No Philly Grocery Tax," the opposition's shorthand for Kenney's proposed tax.

Around City Hall, nearly a dozen large trucks bearing logos for Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and other beverages were parked in the street. Before the rally and again after, the drivers of those vehicles laid on their horns.

The Kenney administration was undeterred. "We're very confident about our support in Council," said Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman. "Nothing about today was a surprise. The soda industry paid a lot of people to come in from New Jersey to make it seem like this opposition was driven by the people and not millionaires, but at the end of the day, polls show that most Philadelphians support the soda tax because it's the fairest way to [pay for] desperately needed educational programs." 

Kenney has proposed the 3-cents-per-ounce tax to fund several programs, including pre-K and improvements to the city's parks and recreation centers.

The measure needs nine votes in the 17-member chamber to pass.

Sánchez, Taubenberger, and Blackwell are the first to publicly lock in their votes, making the moment a notable one in a fight likely to drag on several more weeks. All three had voiced concerns after Kenney proposed the tax.

Taubenberger said Wednesday that there should be no question about where he stood: "My vote is no. Not now. Not ever."

Blackwell said she would stand with "all who are this side of the issue."

"We'll see what happens," she added. "The struggle still continues. But we're on your side."

Quiñones-Sánchez and Taubenberger both expressed a desire to find other funding methods for Kenney's pre-K plan. Quiñones-Sánchez said the mayor has included wage-tax reductions in the city's five-year plan that could be dropped.

"I think there is another way that we can give Mayor Kenney his priorities," she said.

After the rally, the protesters entered an already crowded Council chambers for public testimony on the tax that stretched more than two hours.

Harold Honickman, a Philadelphia philanthropist who owns Pepsi and Canada Dry bottling operations and has worked to build opposition for the tax on Council, sat in the second row.

As witnesses took the microphone, testifying in panels alternating for and against the tax, supporters in the galleries broke into cheers each time their side spoke.

The arguments at the rally and hearing were familiar.

Those opposed argued the tax would lead to a loss of hundreds of jobs, including for those who bottle it, deliver it, or sell it at corner stores.

Kenny Poon, who owns a bar and restaurant in Chinatown and used to own a corner store, said that the impact on his business would likely be limited but that his bigger concern was for the Philadelphians living in poverty who used to come into his store with just enough change in their pockets for a can of soda. "This city is so poor," he said. "Why do you want to do a soda tax in such a poor city?"

On the other side, health advocates argued that enacting a tax would result in less diabetes and longer life expectancies, while rec center leaders talked about the deplorable conditions of the city's playing fields.

George Matysik, executive director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, said the programs the tax would pay for could level the playing field for communities living in poverty. "We're not going to fix that problem by giving them more soda," he said. "We're going to fix that problem by giving them equal opportunities."

tnadolny@phillynews.com

215-854-2730@TriciaNadolny

This story has been changed to remove an incorrect reference to the location of the Coca-Cola and Pepsi bottling plants serving Philadelphia. They are located in the city.

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