Every groundhog-lover in Pennsylvania will have his eyes fixed on Punxsutawney this week where that town’s most famous resident will emerge and do his annual meteorological duty. But spare a moment for Philadelphia and our equivalent local tradition: The City Controller releases reports detailing the mismanagement of city resources and your tax dollars. If City Council sees its shadow, we get another year of crooked government.
But here’s the twist: they see their shadow every single year.
Nothing changes, nothing is reformed—they just raise taxes again to pay for the graft and waste.
The latest report to poke its head out of the ground is City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s release last month of information about the city’s soda tax. The tax has been a matter of contention since it was first proposed in 2016. Originally, sugary sodas were to be taxed to fund universal pre-K schooling: a feel-good, budget-neutral proposal to warm the hearts of progressives city-wide. By the time it passed, the tax had been expanded to cover non-sugary beverages (undercutting the health rationale) and the money was now to fund various unnamed projects beyond schools, including city employee benefits (undercutting the claimed benefits).
And that was just what Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council were admitting to have changed.
Since the tax’s enactment, Rhynhart has consistently noted that the money is not going where the politicians from the Democratic machine promised it would.
I know, you are all shocked.
In the years since it was passed, Rhynhart’s office notes, “the majority of Beverage Tax revenue, $178.9 million or 53.6% of the total, has gone to the General Fund.” That is to say, it just gets thrown in with the other taxes (the lofty goals of universal, city-funded pre-K conveniently forgotten). To be sure, some of the tax money still flows that way, but just 36.6%, a far cry from the 100% originally proposed or the 50%-plus promised at final passage.
The biggest joke about the soda tax is that Kenney claimed never to have intended prices to go up. Indeed, after making soda more expensive, he claimed the increased price was due to “price gouging” by merchants. The statement was an obvious lie — if the price didn’t go up, no one would decrease his soda intake and the promised health effects of the law would never happen.
And even with the price increase, it didn’t work, according to a study by Drexel University researchers.
Kenney’s illiterate explanation foreshadowed claims by President Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren this year that inflation wasn’t real, it was just greedy merchants raising the prices. Weird how they only discovered greed after the government inflated the money supply.
But to return to local matters, Councilman David Oh pointed out in a press release last week that the soda tax didn’t just become corrupt: it was born amid corruption. As the Inquirer reported last year, prosecutors in the trial of Bobby Henon and Johnny Dougherty “alleged Dougherty had Henon back Mayor Jim Kenney’s signature soda tax in 2016 as a way of enacting revenge on the rival Teamster’s union, which was opposed to the bill.” Since that time, Henon and Dougherty were convicted of those and other charges.
It was never about the kids. It was about grabbing the money, punishing your enemies, and patting themselves on the back for caring about the community. The only non-corrupt beneficiaries of the soda tax so far have been the supermarkets just over the city line, where anyone with a car goes to buy soda now.
“The questionable, vindictive motivations behind the tax have been brought to light by federal prosecutors in their convictions of Bobby Henon and John Dougherty, and there continues to be a lack of transparent accounting from the Administration on where a majority of the revenue is being spent,” Oh said in a press release.
He’s right. The soda tax passed through corrupt acts, doesn’t reduce obesity or soda consumption, and two-thirds of the money doesn’t even go where the city promised it would.
City Council should follow Oh’s lead and put an end to this nonsense. But, instead, they’ll see their shadow, pull their heads back underground and ignore the world again until next year.