Commentary: Soda tax will invest in city, address poverty

By Darrell L. Clarke,

Bobby Henon,

Blondell Reynolds Brown,

and Bill Greenlee

On Thursday, City Council will pass a progressive budget that makes historic investments in our children, public spaces, and long-term economic vitality, and demonstrates that cities can rise above the political paralysis gripping state capitals and Washington.

We commend Mayor Kenney and his staff for a bold first budget and for a collaborative and productive process. Communication with Council was key to building consensus and producing a final budget that is fiscally responsible and equitable. We also thank and congratulate our Council colleagues, particularly those new to the body, for exercising due diligence on behalf of taxpayers.

After much healthy debate, Council arrived at a 1.5-cent-per-ounce levy on both naturally and artificially sweetened soft drinks to raise sufficient funds to expand pre-K, add social and health services to schools in struggling neighborhoods, and reinvest in parks, recreation centers, and libraries. We wholeheartedly agree with the mayor that these investments will help address poverty in Philadelphia, and we broadened the beverage tax base to include "diet" drinks so that more people will contribute to a stronger future for all.

These investments will also raise salaries and create jobs in education, construction, and property maintenance. Among Council's additions to the budget are funds for the Department of Parks and Recreation to hire up to 40 Philadelphia residents to begin fixing up public spaces. Kenney's Rebuild Philadelphia plan is rightly ambitious and will require many more contract laborers. Council expects that the total workforce created by the soft-drink tax will be local and representative of the city's diverse population. If successful, these initiatives will attract more people and more employers, including manufacturers, to our city.

While the possible health benefits of the mayor's original proposal were not the primary focus of this debate, Council members were interested in the public-health benefits from day one. Numerous studies show that lower-income Americans disproportionately suffer from obesity and diabetes not because they make bad choices, but because they have few choices. We added a healthy beverage-tax credit to the budget to incentivize smaller merchants to diversify their offerings and promote the sale of affordable, healthy beverages that won't be affected by the beverage tax. It is our hope that this overall package will change health outcomes for the better.

The progress Council is set to make on Thursday is possible because of improvements in the national and local economy. Over the last three months, we have made difficult decisions, but not painful decisions, as was the case during the Great Recession. Philadelphia navigated the recession and is seeing promising growth and recovery because of former Mayor Michael Nutter's stewardship. While his attempts to enact a tax on sugar-added beverages were not successful, they arguably primed the pump for our vote this week.

Nearly 250 years ago, the eyes of the world were on Philadelphia and the birth of American democracy. On Thursday, Philadelphia will again make history by becoming the second U.S. city, and the largest, to pass a tax on soft drinks. Significant challenges remain, including promised lawsuits from the beverage industry. And to be clear, this tax is no salve for poverty, an underfunded public school system, and all else that ails the nation's poorest large city.

But this budget, and the collaborative process that produced it, signal that the mayor and Council can successfully tackle those challenges together.

Darrell L. Clarke is president of City Council.

Bobby Henon is majority leader of Council.

Blondell Reynolds Brown is majority whip of Council.

Bill Greenlee is deputy majority whip of Council.