For those who like theater and love politics, the best show in town early this month was the state House Local Government Committee’s public hearing in City Hall about the city’s sugary drink tax.
If you wonder what a Harrisburg committee has to do with a city tax the answer is: nothing really.
But, Philly’s state Sen. Anthony Williams, who is not even on the committee, asked Republican chair Sen. Scott Wagner to bring the committee to town to hear testimony about the tax. Sort of a fact-finding journey.
The committee had five hours of testimony scheduled, but no sooner had the meeting been gaveled into order than a roomful of pro-tax protesters broke out in waves of jeers, hoots and shout-outs that told the committee, in effect, to get out of town.
After trying unsuccessfully to calm the crowd, Wagner finally gave up and the meeting was canceled. That led Williams to complain afterward that the protest was staged by out-of-towners. People recall seeing pre-K advocates and members of the Service Employees International Union among the crowd of protesters. Some of them may live out of town. But, we doubt suburbanites from, say, Radnor or Bryn Mawr, would have driven in for the day to defend the city’s drink tax.
To us, it looked as if the hearing was staged to provide a platform for opponents of the tax to (once again) have their say. Of the 13 scheduled to testify, 11 were grocers, bottlers, drivers for soft drink companies and others related to the soft-drink industry. Three were advocates for the tax, which is being used to fund pre-K in the city, plus contribute to paying off bonds sold to pay for the city’s ambitious Rebuild program to repair rec centers, playgrounds, parks and libraries.
The key player here is Williams. On one hand, he has said he favors the programs the drink tax will fund, but is against the tax itself, because it places a heavy burden on the poor. On the other hand, he has said he doesn’t intend to introduce a bill in Harrisburg to override the tax and wipe it off the books.
Williams said he was trying to promote discussion of the tax. Our reply: My God, haven’t we had enough discussion? The Kenney administration bill was debated for months. Everybody got their say. It was then modified, passed by Council and signed by the mayor. The soda industry sued, saying the tax was illegal.
It lost its first test in the local courts; its second test in Commonwealth Court. Now, the Supreme Court will get a crack at the case, if it so chooses. If it does take up the case, there will be more … wait for this: discussion.
Williams may truly be motivated by concern for the poor and not by a desire to please the beverage industry. But, we encourage him to get off the fence and do something about it.
Are you against the drink tax but favor the programs it funds, senator? Fine. Why not craft legislation to create an alternate way to raise the money needed for pre-K and Rebuild. It’s in your job description to introduce and advocate passage of bills.
You say it is naïve if people think Harrisburg will come up with the money. But, the city didn’t do that – it imposed the tax locally. A final message: If you are on record as opposing the tax, but you aren’t going to do anything about it, then step aside and keep quiet. Discussion over.