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The Philadelphia Tribune - May 6, 2016

Council cools to proposed sugary drink tax

A day after Wednesday’s protest against Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed 3-cents-an-ounce tax on sugary beverages, City Council members Maria D. Quiñones–Sánchez and Jannie Blackwell elaborated on their stance ahead of the council’s public session on Thursday.

Councilman Al Taubenberger has joined them in voicing opposition to the proposed fee, and by the sounds of things, it will be very hard for the Kenney administration to muster the nine council votes needed to pass the ordinance, which is expected to generate about $400 million over the next five years.

“I’m for pre–k, but not the sugar tax,” said Blackwell, chair of the council’s education committee. “I think he means well. Hopefully, he’ll find a way to work things out in such a way that council can agree with it. But I don’t think [nine votes] exist at this point, so we will see what happens. We have until June 16 when we recess, so we will see how it works out.” Council President Darrell Clarke also sounded lukewarm regarding the proposal, noting that 17 council members “will continue the process,” and will then come to a conclusion.

“Three members of council attended a rally and said they did not support it,” Clarke said. “I don’t think you should take too much from that, but the reality is, the process continues and we will ultimately work out whatever we’re going to work out, with respects to the support, opposition or possibly changing the proposal.

“I don’t ever talk about my position until it’s time for a vote, but I am concerned about the three–cents–per–ounce proposal; I do believe it will probably have some impact on small businesses throughout the city, so I’m a little concerned about that,” he added.

Quiñones–Sánchez, who has a bottling plant and a number of neighborhood stores in her district, said Kenney ought to look elsewhere for his requested funds. Quiñones–Sánchez explained her objection, saying that “everything I’ve done for eight years was to get us on a road to progressive business taxation, so on that alone, I couldn’t support something as regressive as what’s being proposed.”

“My concern is I believe there are other things we are leaving on the table,” she added.

“City Controller Alan Butkovitz confirmed what many of us have been saying: that the lack of Office of Property Assessment oversight leaves about $30 million on the table, and in the five-year plan, there is $217 million in wage cuts because it assumes we will have the constitutional amendment to the bifurcation of taxes,” Quiñones–Sánchez said. “If you have a $4 billion budget, a mayor has to be able to identify $100 million in spending to support his priorities, without resorting to a tax first…for me, it’s about progressive taxation,” she said.

Quiñones–Sánchez said funding of universal pre–kindergarten should come through a hike in real estate taxes, if through any tax at all.

Not everyone on council considered the soda tax proposal was dead in the water, however.

Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said he thought the nine needed council votes could already exist.

“I’m not going to say ‘should.’ The answer is ‘could’ because a lot of people are not giving their positions yet, because they don’t want to be targeted,” Jones said. “I talk to people off the record as a colleague, and they know the devil is in the details. And to the degree of which recreation centers, and how he wants to implement that pre–k program — those details are important in the final decision of those members.”

In other developments, the City Council passed a resolution, sponsored by Councilman Derek Green, authorizing the committee on public health to further investigate the effects that medical marijuana would have on the city.

Green’s bill comes in the wake of Gov. Tom Wolf signing the Medicinal Marijuana Act, which limits the growing and processing of medical marijuana to state-approved vendors and allows dispensaries to sell the product in an edible form.

“I would like to open up the discussion to get some perspective on how this new state law will impact the city of Philadelphia.” Green said. “Twenty–four states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana to be used by their citizens that have serious medical conditions. This resolution provides an opportunity to have a conversation and dialogue with these jurisdictions so that we can learn best practices and procedures with regards to medical marijuana.”

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