It's About Power, Not Soda

(May 2016)

It is no longer about kids or Pre-K or health issues or improving city facilities.  It is no longer about regressive taxation or bottling plants or union jobs or corner stores.  It is no longer about raising revenues or spending money or balancing the city budget.  The debate about imposing a Soda Tax in Philadelphia has boiled down to one thing now -- power.

Mayor Kenney has proposed an ambitious spending initiative in his first proposed budget, which is now being debated by city council.  The mayor would impose a tax on sugary beverages to fund expansion of Pre-K programs, improvements to city recreation and community facilities, and reductions of the city's unfunded pension obligation.  In public, those debating the proposal discuss the good that new spending could achieve and the possibility of reducing unhealthy behavior among city residents versus the regressive nature of a tax on soda consumption and the potential for the new tax to reduce employment in the city.  But, make no mistake, behind closed doors, this passion play is only about who will be able to do what to whom in Philadelphia in the coming years.

City Hall Brawl

It's about power in City Hall.  Philadelphia has a strong-mayor form of government, but the city legislature holds the purse strings.  City Council, especially after getting its way so many times during the Nutter Administration, is not looking to make a habit of rubber-stamping mayoral proposals.  The Soda-Tax debate may be a question about whether council will pass legislation that will increase the cost of sugary drinks, but the answer will tell a lot about who is in charge at City Hall.

War On Fourth Floor

It's about power within City Council.  The City Council president sits on a throne in the council chamber and it is not just for ceremony.  The office wields tremendous power over council members.  Crossing the council president is a quick way to become an ineffective council member.  However, council watchers' eyebrows were raised early this year when the council president's choice to become council's majority leader lost to a rival candidate.  The council president does not want to continue a losing streak.  The Soda-Tax debate may be a question about whether nine council members will vote in favor of the levy, but the answer will tell a lot about whether the council president is firmly in control on the fourth floor of City Hall.

Union Muscle Tussle

It's about solidarity (or not).  Philadelphia has been recognized as a labor town but solidarity among unions is not always the rule.  Many of the unions that support the Soda Tax are excited about jobs that might come from construction work at city facilities.  Many of the unions that oppose the Soda Tax are not so excited about the loss of jobs that may follow a decline in sugary-drink consumption.  All the unions involved are anxious to ensure that their friends in City Hall respond to their outreach -- especially if those politicians are going to be looking for campaign contributions in the next election.  The Soda-Tax debate may be a question about whether the imposition of the tax will create or cost jobs, but the answer will tell a lot about whether Philadelphia unions are united, and if not, which ones are making their union voices heard. 

Beverage Rage

It's about everywhere, not just Philadelphia.  With all the resources being poured into the fight over the Soda Tax, one might think that it might be easier to fund the proposed new spending with the ad money being spent to champion or fight the tax.  It is clear that there is a bigger picture and that advocates for and against taxing sugary drinks want to make an example of Philadelphia.  This fight occurs anywhere a Soda Tax is proposed, but we get to enjoy the fireworks here before the Fourth of July.  The Soda-Tax debate may be a question about whether Philadelphia will levy a local tax, but when elephants fight, ants tremble and the answer will tell a lot about what happens with the idea of taxing sugary drinks in cities and states across the nation. 

It would be good, indeed, if the specific debates about taxing and spending were put in a larger context that considers what we aspire for our city and its future.  It would be even better if our general public debates were, first, actually public, and, second, actually about the policy being publicly debated.  But the system we use in democracies to determine how we raise and spend our scarce collective resources is called "politics." 

Politics is not about policy.  It is about power.  Philadelphia will move forward after this debate with some plan to pay for some new initiatives, which may make a positive difference for the city's future.  But what will definitely result from this policy clash will be a redefinition of power in the city -- and that will definitely make a difference for those in power and those engaged in the power play.