ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Philadelphia's new mayor wants to do something few American cities have been able to do - pass a tax on soda and other sugary drinks. Only Berkeley, Calif., has such a tax. Philly's would be even higher. What's more, as Katie Colaneri of member station WHYY reports, the goal has nothing to do with residents' waistlines.
KATIE COLANERI, BYLINE: Mayor Jim Kenney wants revenue for projects to benefit residents in the poorest big city in America. He argues soda companies make big money and often market their products to low-income people.
JIM KENNEY: What we're looking to do is to take some of that profit, to put it back into the neighborhoods that have been their biggest customers, to improve the lives and opportunities for the people who live there.
COLANERI: That includes a plan for universal pre-K, community schools that offer services like health care, and major renovations to parks, rec centers and libraries. Kenney says a tax of three cents per ounce would generate more than $400 million for these projects. It would apply to soda, iced tea, energy drinks and other sugar-added beverages. So far no one's complaining about Kenney's intentions, but Daniel Grace says there has to be a better way to raise money.
Grace heads up the local Teamsters union which represents about 2,000 people who work in bottling plants and drive delivery trucks. His argument against the tax boils down to this - it could cut consumption of sugary drinks by more than 50 percent, and...
DANIEL GRACE: Less sales means less people. So when a demand goes down, they don't need as many people as they have today.
COLANERI: Grace's union has printed out hundreds of no soda tax buttons and T-shirts and has been handing out leaflets. The American Beverage Association, a national trade group, is expected to spend big money fighting the tax. Right after Kenney brought it up, the Association launched a social media campaign and started running ads on local radio stations.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) I don't know about you, but I pay enough in taxes. And now Philly is talking about a three cent per ounce grocery tax on the kind of drinks we buy for our family. Are you kidding me?
COLANERI: While these ads target Philadelphia residents, the fate of the soda tax is in the hands of the city council. Council President Darrell Clarke says he's concerned the burden would fall hardest on those Kenney is trying to help - the poor.
DARRELL CLARKE: It doesn't take a whole lot of analysis to determine where those sugary drinks are being sold. So the question is, is that fair?
ADAN MAIRENA: If it's not the fairest, it is perhaps the most viable and realistic approach to this.
COLANERI: Adan Mairena is a pastor in North Philadelphia and is part of a group supporting the tax. He estimates 80 percent of his members live below the poverty line and admits some of them are worried about paying more for these drinks. Mairena is urging them to take the long view.
MAIRENA: If we pass this, it's going to provide more opportunities in the long run and it's going to make us a better people, a better community.
COLANERI: At a supermarket just a few miles away, Maribel Alago is loading bottles of a sugary sports drink into her car. What does she think of the tax?
MARIBEL ALAGO: I disagree with that, of course.
COLANERI: She points out the city raised property taxes last year and there's a $2 per pack tax on cigarettes.
ALAGO: People cannot barely afford anything now days. Now they going to tax soda, too.
COLANERI: Nancy Jean-Simon is already trying to cut back on how much soda she drinks, and she thinks the tax is a good idea.
NANCY JEAN-SIMON: You know, if it's for education, personally, I don't mind, you know, paying for it.
COLANERI: Mayor Kenney says if the city council doesn't approve the tax, there's no other way to pay for expanded pre-K or revamped rec centers. He says Plan B is going without those things. For NPR News, I'm Katie Colaneri in Philadelphia.
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