Political Bait and Switch

Jim Kenney was elected mayor of Philadelphia last November and took office in January. The Curmudgeon has a particularly low opinion of Mr. Kenney and has expressed this on several occasions in this space (including here, here, here, and here).

Alas, Kenney is living down to The Curmudgeon’s expectations.

The “living down” part actually began with an encouraging development: Kenney proposed spending $80 million so the city could provide universal pre-K education and so he could transform some of the city’s public schools into more community-oriented institutions, complete with family services such as health care, counseling, child care, after-school programs and more.

So far, so good, right?

Although he served for 23 years on Philadelphia’s city council, Kenney apparently didn’t think there was any fat at all in the city’s budget, so he decided he needed to raise the $80 million through new tax revenue – and not an ordinary increase in any existing city taxes, either, but through the creation of a new tax: on “sugary drinks.” The Curmudgeon shared his thoughts about that idea here.

It was a cagey political gambit: instead of just an ordinary tax increase, Kenney was proposing a special tax for a god/country/apple pie kind of purpose. It was hard to say no to “Let’s do it for the kids.”

A lot of people wanted to say no, of course, including those in the soft drink industry, which would bear the brunt of the tax increase, as well as convenience store owners, restaurant owners, and people who drink a lot of sugar-filled soft drinks. It was a new kind of sin tax, but still similar to the surcharges government imposes on people to smoke and drink alcohol (although the idea that sugar is “sinful” is ridiculous).

The public campaign was built around this premise: a three cents per ounce tax on sugary beverages, with the proceeds to go for full-day pre-K education and turning public schools into more community-oriented facilities. While the campaign to support this was geared toward the public, the public had no voice in the matter: it was the public’s elected members of city council who would make the call. The purpose of the campaign was to generate public support to encourage members of the city council to vote for the tax. The soda industry launched an aggressive campaign in opposition, often making it look as if it was joined by small convenience store and restaurant owners. Of course the soda people paid the freight – a reported $5 million – but still, there was organized and forceful opposition.

For a while the mayor’s proposal looked like it was in trouble, especially when the president of city council, who is waaaaay smarter than the mayor, expressed his opposition. Still, the idea of taxing something bad for people to do something good for people exerted a powerful pull on a lot of folks and eventually, the city council came around and passed the new tax.

And then the public learned what really happened.

The opposition to the size of the tax proved effective: the tax rate, three cents per ounce, was cut in half.

So how to make up for the lost revenue? Simple: tax diet beverages as well.

Whoa, Nelly: that wasn’t at all part of the public discourse during the months the proposal was discussed and debated.

So what happened? How did the tax change from one that penalized the use of something thought to be harmful to a tax that just raised money through beverage sales regardless of whether the beverage in question is considered harmful?

Through an old sales tactic known as “bait and switch,” that’s how.

But there’s more: that was by no means the end of the baiting and switching.

It turns out that the new tax that was supposed to be solely for the school improvements isn’t actually solely for school improvements after all: 20 percent of the new money will go into the city’s general fund, with all of the rest of the local tax revenue and be spent on ordinary, everyday city government things like the local community college, juvenile offender programs, and city employee benefits.

Another bait and switch.

It’s not right. Regardless of whether you were for or against the tax, the mayor made it clear how the tax money was to be spent and why he chose to tax sugary beverages. In the end, though, it wasn’t about healthy or non-healthy, it was about getting the money.

And then at the eleventh hour he informed Philadelphians that he wasn’t going get the money the way he explained he was getting it and wasn’t going to spend the money the way he said was going to spend it. His entire campaign for the tax, a campaign designed to encourage taxpayers to encourage their members of city council to support it, was built on a gigantic and intentional, with malice aforethought, fabrication.

Kenney is the perpetrator of a huge political bait and switch.

In other words, he is a liar.

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