Weeks of arguing, advertising, and lobbying in the great soda-tax debate hasn't changed the fact that no better alternative has been presented to City Council to put preschool children on the right educational path to break the cycle of poverty in America's poorest big city.
Mayor Kenney has proposed a 3-cents-per-ounce sugary-drink tax to raise $95 million a year to fund an expansion of high-quality prekindergarten centers across the city and pay for needed improvements to libraries, recreation centers, and parks.
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown has proposed taxing drinks by container instead of per ounce, but that alternative won't raise as much money and does little to dilute the beverage industry's argument that any tax on sodas would reduce consumption and cost jobs.
The proposed container tax would add 15 cents to the cost of each bottle or can and be applied not only to sugary drinks but also healthier beverages like fruit juice and water. Brown says it would raise $60 million to $94 million a year, but Kenney says the lower figure is more accurate when calculations factor in a more realistic drop in consumption.
Brown's proposal also could potentially give an unfair advantage to chain convenience stores with soda fountains since fountain drinks wouldn't be taxed. Consumers could wind up gulping sugary drinks that they imbibe on site or take home in huge, disposable cups in even larger quantities.
Despite vociferous opposition to Kenney's tax, few arguments have been made against his goal to expand pre-K. Given the beverage industry's barrage of ads opposing the funding proposal, one does wonder why alternatives other than a container tax weren't proposed by other Council members or business leaders who claim they are committed to early education.
Lacking other funding proposals, Council should take the container tax off the table and give Kenney's plan its full attention. In doing so, it must put the needs of the city's children above those of an industry that has spent $2.5 million to keep Philadelphia from passing legislation that it fears may become a model elsewhere.
This battle has drawn a swarm of beverage truck drivers, lobbyists, and other supporters and detractors of Kenney's soda tax to City Hall in recent weeks, all hoping to sway Council in one direction or another. At one point it even became an issue in the presidential race, with Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton (for it) and Bernie Sanders (against it) taking opposite sides.
Kenney believes he has the votes he needs, but there may be a compromise that reduces the tax. Once the funding mechanism is settled, city officials must ensure revenue derived from the levy is spent wisely and transparently both to expand pre-K and to improve dilapidated public infrastructure.
Toward that end, a William Penn Foundation-funded study on the condition of city rec centers, playgrounds, parks, and library branches must be made public so it is clear that renovation decisions are devoid of politics. That also must be true with the pre-K expansion program. People asked to pay higher taxes to help children want assurances that the money will be well spent.