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Pittsburgh Lawmaker Goes After Philly Soda Tax, Calls For Ban On Food & Drink Tax Across The State

Matt Rourke
In this March 16, 2017 photo, sugar tax stickers are posted by sweetened beverages at the IGA supermarket in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Opponents of Philadelphia’s controversial sweetened beverage tax, stymied so far in their efforts to defeat the levy in court, are getting some support in the state legislature.

State Rep. Mark Mustio (R-Allegheny) has introduced a bill which would overturn the Philadelphia tax. It would also ban any city, township or borough in the state from imposing a tax on any food or beverage (except for beer, wine and spirits), or on any food or beverage container.

Mustio said he’d heard from soda tax opponents that grocery stores in Philadelphia are losing sales as customers head to the suburbs to buy their soda.

“We're seeing that those places where families buy their food and groceries are starting to lose money, and we don't want them to close,” Mustio said in a phone interview.

Beverage tax opponents point to a study they commissioned which draws on proprietary data from impacted businesses and concludes the tax has cost nearly 1,200 jobs in the city.

Philadelphia officials dispute the assertion that local stores are hurting.

On Wednesday the mayor’s office released information based on wage tax collections and unemployment claims suggesting that industries impacted by the tax are not suffering.

The city passed the tax to fund pre-kindergarten and other programs.

Opponents sued to get the tax overturned, charging it violated provisions of the state constitution. That case is now before the state supreme court.

Can Philly tax itself?

Mike Dunn, spokesman for Mayor Kenney said in an interview there’s a broader problem with Mustio’s bill.

“This legislation would take away the ability of local governments to pass local ordinances to solve their own problems,” Dunn said in an interview. “The beverage tax was a way for us to raise local revenues to help in a number of ways, including funding free pre-K.”

This isn’t the first time members of the Republican-controlled legislature have undertaken efforts to pre-empt the city from embracing certain policy objectives.

Legislation has appeared aimed at reversing city laws and policies on immigrant detention, paid sick leave for private sector workers, and the practice of employers asking job applicants about their past salaries. None have become law.

Mustio said his bill is designed to protect taxpayers across the state from local officials who “get creative” in finding new taxes to impose. He insisted it’s not an anti-Philadelphia gesture.

“I’ve helped the city of Philadelphia on other votes, whether it’s funding for Septa, (imposing) the cigarette tax, and I’ve supported the current mayor and the previous mayor on issues,” Mustio said. “This isn’t a Philadelphia issue to me. It’s a consumer issue and a jobs issue.”

Mustio said he believes his bill has the support of legislative leaders and should pass quickly.

Would Governor Tom Wolf sign it if it reaches his desk?

His spokesman J.J. Abbott told me the administration hasn’t finished reviewing the bill, but that “generally the governor has been opposed to these pre-emption bills that prevent local municipalities from enacting their own ordinances.”

He added that the governor is “a huge supporter” of early childhood education, and that if local authorities want to supplement the state’s efforts, “he doesn’t feel the legislature should get in the way of that.”

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