Council considers taxing diet soda, too

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Taxing diet soda could address a concern voiced by several Council members who say a sugary drinks tax would disproportionately hit low-income neighborhoods where the most sugary beverages are consumed.

Mayor Kenney wants a tax on sugary drinks, but City Council is considering adding diet soda to the mix, according to a memo obtained by the Inquirer that is being circulated among Council members.

The letter, drafted by Council President Darrell L. Clarke's office, includes 10 alternatives to Kenney's proposed 3-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks. They range from a 1-cent version of Kenney's plan to a combination of what have been seen as competing proposals: a sugary-drinks tax and a container tax.

"Obviously, there are an infinite number of variations that could be considered," Clarke wrote in the letter, dated Wednesday. "But in the interest of coming to a consensus, this chart focuses on a limited number of options for your consideration. Other variations that you may want to propose could certainly be considered."

Kenney's 3-cent tax on sugary drinks, according to the administration, would bring in $95 million annually to fund, among other things, an expansion of prekindergarten education and improvements to parks, recreation centers, and libraries.

Council has seemed increasingly intent on finding some way to make Kenney's plan a reality. But the members have also seemed far from reaching a consensus, as Clarke proposed a more modest pre-K rollout and Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown introduced an alternative container tax that would add 15 cents to the cost of many beverages that come in a bottle or can, including water.

Most Council members have said that Kenney's 3-cent-per-ounce request is unrealistic.

And of the 10 options being floated by Clarke, the highest stand-alone sugary-beverage tax is a 1.5-cent-per-ounce levy, which Council estimates would reap $77 million annually.

Also on the list:

A 1.25-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages and diet soda.

A .75-cent-per-ounce sugary-beverage tax and a 5-cent container tax (that would exclude sugary drinks).

A .75-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages and diet soda, and a 5-cent container tax (that would exclude sugary beverages and diet).

The plans would bring in anywhere from $58 million to $85 million, according to Council's estimates.

Clarke, in the letter, said the 10 options were raised in part because the Kenney administration has "expressed willingness to consider alternatives to its original proposal."

In a statement, Kenney's spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, said the administration expects and appreciates that Council is "going to do their due diligence and look over a range of options."

"We look forward to continuing to work with them to decide upon a solution that will fully fund these important educational and neighborhood programs," she said.

In budget hearings last week, city Finance Director Rob Dubow, in response to questions about combining a sugary-drink and container tax, said it would be administratively difficult.

Taxing diet soda could address a concern voiced by several Council members who say a sugary-drinks tax would disproportionately hit low-income neighborhoods, where the most sugary beverages are consumed.

Councilman Allan Domb, who is a part owner in the Steven Starr Restaurant Group, raised the point at a May 11 hearing, noting that adding diet would "broaden the base."

"People with more money drink diet," he said.

Council is expected to settle on a funding option as early as next week.

tnadolny@phillynews.com

215-854-2730@TriciaNadolny