Paying for preschool justifies Kenney's soda tax

Soda and other sugary beverages would be taxed by the ounce under Kenney's plan.

A quarter of Philadelphia's residents live in poverty, and too many of its children grow up in dangerous neighborhoods and attend struggling schools. Even after decades of antipoverty efforts and education reforms, these problems persist with maddening certainty.

Mayor Kenney's bold plan to provide prekindergarten education in the parts of the city that need it most would give more of the youngest Philadelphians a better chance to succeed. Studies since the 1960s have shown that early-childhood education helps more students graduate from high school, go on to get and keep good jobs, and contribute to their communities. Kenney's plan would further enhance neighborhoods by improving recreation centers and libraries.

As ever in an overtaxed, overburdened city, the difficult question is financing. Kenney deserves credit for a forthright, if controversial, answer. He has revived the idea of a tax on sodas and other sugary drinks, a proposal that failed twice under his predecessor, Michael Nutter, amid opposition from City Council, including then-Councilman Kenney himself, as well as the Editorial Board.

Kenney's proposal is different, however, in that it's being pitched as a means of paying for specific and needed programs. Meanwhile, the administration has refrained from overselling the uncertain public-health benefits of the tax - while noting correctly that a decline in soda consumption can only help a city beset by obesity and related diseases.

Because Berkeley, Calif., is the only American city that has imposed a comparable tax, much uncertainty remains about its effects on not only health but also consumption and therefore revenue. The administration nevertheless seems to have been thorough and conservative in its projections.

The 3-cent-per-ounce tax is facing predictably fierce opposition from the beverage industry and its allies, who say it would further discourage grocery chains from opening stores in the city and encourage small-scale shopkeepers to cross the city line to stock up. Opponents also predict that the tax would be passed on particularly to the consumers who can afford it least.

But those consumers would also benefit from the programs the tax would fund, and all consumers would be free to choose healthier drinks and avoid the tax entirely. And though it's true that Philadelphia already suffers from onerous business taxes, Kenney has demonstrated a commitment to cutting and simplifying them more broadly. Along with continuing wage tax reductions, Kenney must follow through on that to improve the city's business climate and economy.

While the property tax is a more reliable and less avoidable levy that remains relatively moderate, administration officials point out that it has been repeatedly increased in recent years. The mayor should nevertheless consider it, perhaps in combination with a soda tax. After all, better education, libraries, and recreation centers stand to improve property values.

To justify imposing a new tax, the administration must assure Philadelphians that the revenue will fund the proposed programs and not be dumped into the general fund for other purposes. City Council should support Kenney's proposal provided that any tax increase is dedicated to high-quality early-childhood education, libraries, and recreation centers. Philadelphia's children and neighborhoods are well worth it.