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Philadelphia Daily News - May 6, 2016

Want political chips with your soda tax?

I WANTED to frame this as "Soda Wars" because Wednesday, May the Fourth (be with you), was (nerd alert!) "Star Wars Day." It didn't work, because Jim Kenney looks more like Chewbacca than Luke Skywalker, and while former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is about Yoda's height, I had no one to play Darth Vader.

On the soda tax, which is where I'm going, reporting is now focused on how both sides - the pro-tax Philadelphians for a Fair Future and the antitax Philadelphians Against the Grocery Tax - are funded.

The two major funders of the pro-tax side are Texas millionaires Laura and John Arnold, and Bloomberg, the Big Bucks Buttinski. They want Philadelphia - America's poorest big city - to levy the biggest soda tax in this galaxy, which is not far, far away.

The antitax side is funded mainly by the American Beverage Association, which has the audacity to fight a tax that singles out its product. The ABA's unspoken fear is being turned into the next tobacco.

The demagoguery started early, when Kenney, in his budget address, said this about an industry that pays all taxes asked of it: "Big Soda charges our citizens, small businesses, and distributors much, much more than what it costs for them to make the soda."

That is a business practice called "profit." If the price is too high, customers won't buy, and that's what bottlers - already experiencing falling sales - fear will happen.

Then Kenny got really crazy, Trump crazy.

About soda, he said, "There's a lot of money being made off the backs of poor people," and the industry has "been taxing the poor for generations . . ."

He didn't mention his regressive tax falls heaviest on the poor.

In another howler, Kenney said, "There is simply nowhere else to find this revenue," meaning the $80 million a year to fund pre-K, plus some improvements for parks and rec centers.

Almost the same words were used in 1994 when a 10 percent tax on liquor by the drink was imposed, and $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes in 2014.

Each tax was for "the schools" and "the children." Those are like magic beans to some people who suspend critical thinking.

History teaches that in a few years, Kenney will be rattling his cup for more funds. He will discover something else to tax, perhaps cheesesteaks, perhaps cupcakes, perhaps milkshakes.

Millions will be spent in the coming weeks as each side tries to win over a lot of people, but the only people who count are the nine on City Council who will constitute a majority needed to approve Kenney's eye-popping and hypocritical 3-cent-an-ounce tax on sugary drinks.

Hypocritical because, as a councilman, Kenney strongly opposed the same tax - at only 2 cents an ounce - proposed by Mayor Nutter, who tried it twice and failed.

At a Wednesday antitax rally, political chips started falling. Three Council members said they'd vote against the tax - Republican Al Taubenberger and Democrats Jannie Blackwell and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez.

Kenney said, "We did not have them counted in our column to begin with." In the past, he's called Blackwell a mentor and Sánchez a close ally.

Republican Councilman Brian O'Neill is on record as opposing the tax. Democratic Council President Darrell Clarke doubted the tax will raise enough and feared, "We will have to raise another tax ..." I'll count him as no, making five opposed. Republican David Oh should make six of 17. Three more dooms the tax.

No Council member - not even hellacious education advocate Democrat Helen Gym - has declared in favor of the tax. I still count her as yes, along with Democrats Mark Squilla and Bobby Henon.

The progressive Blackwell said the cause is good, but the tax is bad for her constituents. Council members representing poor districts might be feeling the same.

The Teamsters are putting enormous pressure on Democrats and "they're panicking," a political insider tells me.

If Kenney proposed a twice-failed tax without having a majority of Council in his pocket, that's political malfeasance.

Could he have been that dumb? Does he have a secret path to victory? Will he explode like the Death Star?

The sequel will be out soon.

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