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Philadelphia Inquirer - June 10, 2016

Inquirer editorial: What else don't we know about soda tax?

Mayor Kenney greets children during a news conference in March at the Rising Stars APM Preschool Center. Kenney is asking for a soda tax to fund initiatives including universal pre-K.

Watching Mayor Kenney's proposed legislation to tax sugary drinks wend its way toward expected City Council approval gives credence to the old saying that laws are like sausages: It's better not to see them being made. Philadelphia politics in particular can be pretty disgusting to watch, as moves and countermoves conceal true motives.

The intent of Kenney's plan - to raise revenue to provide more early-childhood education opportunities for the city's children - is without question noble and needed, and Council's preliminary assent is a victory. But the route of his quest has at times been upsetting.

Take Wednesday's surprising revelation in a City Council meeting that some soda-tax money would be used to shore up the city's depleted general fund. It was surprising because Kenney listed five specific beneficiaries of soda tax revenue when he announced his plan. Over five years, he said, the tax would provide:

$256 million to expand the number of high-quality prekindergarten centers;

$39 million for 25 community schools housing social-service agencies;

$23 million to make selected school buildings more energy-efficient;

$56 million to help repay a proposed $300 million bond to upgrade parks and recreation centers;

and $26 million to help reduce the pension system's $5.7 billion deficit.

It's not unusual to see allocations and beneficiaries of anticipated revenue change as a proposed tax is debated and amended, but Kenney's office maintains that he always intended to put some cash in the general fund. "The mayor did not make a big issue of it at public events because it's pretty standard budget math," Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt told the Inquirer Editorial Board Thursday.

She said any revenue exceeding what is needed to initiate the mayor's programs, about $24 million over five years, would go to the general fund. Hitt described that as standard procedure that required no public explanation. But Council President Darrell L. Clarke said in a statement Thursday that Council reached a consensus in favor of the tax "following the Kenney administration's admission that it intended to divert some of the revenues to the city's general fund."

So was it standard procedure or a game-changing development? Certainly wily City Hall veterans like Kenney and Clarke know the truth. Meanwhile, the public is left to ponder whether a broader-based levy would have been more appropriate to help balance the city's budget.

Ironically, when then-Councilman Kenney opposed a proposed soda tax in 2010, he cited the lack of specificity in Mayor Nutter's plan to spend revenue earmarked for the general fund. It makes sense to put excess revenue to good use if it isn't immediately needed for its original purpose. But Kenney should have specified every detail of his plan, not only to assure the public that every dime will be wisely spent, but to quiet soda-tax critics who now accuse him of trying to hide something.

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