Pa. Senate hearing on soda tax drowned out by protest

State Sen. Scott Wagner speaks with protesters disrupting his Local Government Committee hearing in City Hall.

The agenda was packed. The testimony was written. And then State Sen. Scott Wagner, a York County Republican, said good morning to the audience assembled in City Hall for a Local Government Committee hearing on Philadelphia’s sweetened beverage tax.

And that was the last anyone heard of the hearing for more than 45 minutes, as pro-tax protesters seized audible control of City Council’s chambers, blowing plastic horns and whistles and chanting, “This is our house.”

Wagner, the committee’s chairman, sat at a table with his colleagues, including State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat who opposes the tax and requested the hearing, for nearly an hour before retreating from the raucous rancor to a private room to confer.

Wagner, who at one point went into the audience to ask the crowd to quiet down, then canceled the hearing and said it would be rescheduled in Harrisburg.

“This maybe gives the people around Pennsylvania an idea about how things operate down in Philly,” said Wagner, who is running for governor. “It’s a shame.”

Williams, who was sitting next to Wagner, shrugged a reply, “Welcome to Philadelphia.”

Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Mayor Kenney, later pushed back on the notion that the protest was about Philadelphia.

“I think if they went to any locality in Pennsylvania and staged a hearing to gin up support for defunding pre-K, community schools, parks, rec centers and libraries, they would get the same response they received today,” Hitt said.

Williams said the senators at the hearing did not oppose the projects that would be funded by the tax. But he expressed concern about the impact on jobs and to the poor of the 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax added to the cost of most sugary and diet beverages sold in Philadelphia.

While frustrated at times, Wagner was polite with the protesters, stopping to shake the hand of one, Jermaine Smith, in a hallway outside of the hearing.  Smith carried a sign with a picture of Wagner’s face, noting his strong support for President Trump in last year’s election, with a caption that said, “Haul that trash back to York.”

Wagner, who runs a trash-hauling service firm in York County, after canceling the hearing said protests are common in the Capitol in Harrisburg but disrupted hearings are not.

The General Assembly could propose legislation to preempt Philadelphia’s power to tax beverage makers, though no such bill has been offered.

Wagner called himself “neutral” on such a move and said he did not yet know enough about the issue.

Williams, who said he would oppose a move to preempt the tax, called the attempted hearing “a conversation, not a debate.”

“And I think, unfortunately, we’ve gotten to this place in America where we can’t even say things that we have a different perspective on without having an argument,” Williams said.  “We should be smart enough and strategic enough to air our differences in public in a constructive way.”

Williams added: “If you think that, at the end of this conversation today, they can go to Harrisburg and ask for a penny more for pre-K or anything else, I think we’d be pretty well challenged.”

Wagner agreed that the protest could have consequences for Philadelphia in Harrisburg.

“There was nothing accomplished,” Wagner said. “And actually what’s going to happen is that people are going to turn on their TVs and see the disruption, and they’re going to scratch their heads.”

Kenney, who pushed for the tax last year, and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke submitted written testimony for the hearing that suggested the Senate committee leave the city alone on the issue.

“It is surprising that elected representatives of a state facing a $3 billion deficit would seek to interfere with a local funding solution to solve universal challenges,” that testimony said. “We respectfully ask the General Assembly to allow the City of Philadelphia the autonomy we need, and frankly deserve, to improve the lives of our residents.”

Friday’s hearing agenda included planned testimony from union leaders and beverage makers who oppose the tax, along with some pro-tax speakers. City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who opposes the tax, and City Councilwoman Helen Gym, who supports it, were denied places on the agenda to testify.

Gym arrived early, read her testimony before the hearing started and then took pictures as the protesters waved signs. Ian Gavigan, a spokesman for Gym, said Wagner asked her during the protest to help him quiet the crowd.

“The councilwoman responded that she had not been authorized to speak,” Gavigan said. “Even if she had been on the agenda, she could not and would not have silenced the people of Philadelphia who were standing up for what they believe in.”