Today over 100 parents, students, and community members packed City Council chambers—in the middle of a workday afternoon—and testified for over three hours to demand movement on the liquor-by-the-drink tax. For weeks, parents and other community members have made thousands of phone calls, sent hundreds of letters, spent hours on lobbying visits, and gathered countless petition signatures in support of raising desperately needed funds for our public schools.
Opposite us were a handful of lobbyists, whose sole job is to be paid to gain access to City Council members and state legislators.
To our disgust, Council could not muster enough support on the liquor-by-the-drink bill in order to vote it out of committee. Despite testimony on the desperate need of our students, and despite presentation of data demonstrating how this tax will not undermine food and beverage establishments, Council could not summon the collective will to do right by our city’s children.
As proposed, the liquor-by-the-drink bill would raise $22 million for Philadelphia’s public schools by increasing the tax rate on liquor by the drink from 10% to 15%. In effect this would add 15 to 50 cents to the price of a drink and be borne by individual customers as a sales tax—not by businesses. As a regional hub, Philadelphia will continue to attract suburban visitors and tourists as well as local residents, none of whom will be deterred from patronizing bars and restaurants by paying an additional charge ranging from 15-50 cents per drink. Indeed research conducted by the PA Budget and Policy Center found that when this tax was first introduced back in 1996, it did not depress sales, job growth, and new business as the restaurant lobby had claimed. Rather, restaurants experienced phenomenal growth over the next several years as measured both by the number of new establishments and jobs. (See the PA Budget and Policy Center Brief on the Impact of Proposed Tax Changes on the City of Philadelphia.)
But what are facts, figures and moral urgency when you’ve got paid lobbyists whispering in your ear? Instead of listening to the people of this city, a small portion of Council bowed instead to the demands of the restaurant lobby and the Chamber of Commerce. As a result, Council appears to be slinking away from its responsibility to our city’s children and schools.
Thus far, the only tax Council can muster support for is a cigarette tax that still relies on Harrisburg approval. In the midst of this crisis, our children deserve a guarantee that Council will do the most it can. Instead it sure feels as if Council is doing the least it can get away with.
To be fair, a number of Council members are doing heroic work trying to drag some of their colleagues out of their hiding places. Council President Darrell Clarke has said he is not willing to give up the fight on liquor-by-the-drink. Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez has been doing yeoman’s work on her Use & Occupancy Tax. Councilmembers Jones, Goode, Tasco, Reynolds-Brown and Greenlee are also to be commended for supporting school funding measures. So really, our obstacle is coming down to two council members who need to step up and step up now.
Tomorrow parents will turn out again at Council to give testimony on the Use and Occupancy bill. Council President Clarke has said that the liquor-by-the-drink bill is not dead yet; it could still make it to a vote. But to make it happen, Council members need to develop some backbone.
Cindy Bass, Jannie Blackwell, Bobby Henon, Kenyatta Johnson, James Kenney, David Oh, and Mark Squilla, we are looking straight at you.