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Philadelphia Soda Tax Helps Send Thousands Of Kids To Pre-K In Its First 2 Years

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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - In the first two years that Philadelphia's sweetened beverage tax was implemented, it's helped to send thousands of kids to pre-K and created a couple hundred jobs, but it takes a lot of soda to pay for it all. The soda tax brought in $149 million from January 2017 – December 2018. The tax's impact can be seen inside pre-kindergarten schools, like Spring Garden Academy, in Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood.

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That's where Eyewitness News found Denise Pickard. She can't afford to pay the roughly $200 a week it would cost to send her 3-year-old daughter to pre-k there, but the city picks up the tab for her. It uses money from its sweetened beverage tax.

"I know a lot of people, they were like, 'Oh, I'm not repealing any benefits. They just made this up. They just trying to take our money and use it for themselves,'" Pickard said. "And I'm like, 'Well, I can testify my child is benefiting from it because she's going to a private school for free.'"

Now that Nina Roller's daughter can also attend pre-k for free, Roller can now increase her hours as a paralegal.

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"Now me and Gia can make the life we want for ourselves, or at least start it."

Philadelphia city leaders said money from the soda tax allows more than 4,000 kids to attend pre-k with no cost to their families. Plus, nearly 280 pre-k jobs have been created, including several at Spring Garden Academy.

"We have several new teachers as well as two new kitchen staff and a new director," said Dionna Tillery, the director at SGA.

A big chunk of the city's soda tax, $39.5 million, went to pre-k schools in Philly.

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The city also said about $6 million went to fund nine community schools and about $1 million went to rebuild Philly's parks, but most of it has gone to payroll at this point.

Eyewitness News also discovered about $102 million still sits in the city's bank account.

"We were in court for two plus years with the soda industry," said Mayor Jim Kenney.

Kenney pointed out the city didn't want to spend the soda tax money while the city was in a legal limbo with the soda industry. That ended last July, when the city finally won a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case. The soda industry sought to have the soda tax repealed.

"They sue us, we wind up having to hold onto the money, in case we lose the lawsuit so we don't spend it all and have to pay it from the general fund. So we're catching up with the delay they caused," Kenney said.

Now that Philadelphia can use the tax money generated by the soda tax, all of the money is expected to be fully spent in a few years. But is it a job killer?

The Teamsters Local 830 is the union that rallied against the soda tax before it went into effect in January 2017. The union claimed the soda tax "would result in the loss of 2,000 family-sustaining teamster union jobs and countless other jobs in the beverage industry."

Now, two years into the tax, we asked Teamsters spokesperson Kara Deniz if many jobs had been lost. We were told no comment.

But Jim Engler had plenty to say – he's Kenney's chief of staff.

"For them not to have any comment at this point about job losses that they claimed would cripple their industry is telling," he said.

But the soda tax will only stay in Philadelphia depending on who is running the city.

"As far as the soda tax is concerned I would repeal it," said former Philadelphia Controller Alan Butkovitz, who is challenging Kenney in this year's primary.

Butkovitz said Philadelphia is the nation's biggest poor city and cannot afford the soda tax. He would look at alternate measures, like a container tax. But some city council members are also up for a re-election and it won't be known who would or wouldn't support the measure. Still, Butkovitz stands by it.

"You try to aim for a revenue source that'll fall on everyone equally and hopefully by a very little amount," he said about it.

Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony Williams is exploring the possibility of running for mayor.

"The tax is not working out. Unfortunately, poor people in Philadelphia are paying a disproportionate amount and I think that's unfair," Williams said.

Williams agreed that something else needs to replace the soda tax. But what would replace it is not clear.

Kenney vows to keep the tax, pointing out it is working. He also said if you don't want to pay a soda tax then you don't have to purchase soda.

"Soda is not the elixir of life. You don't need it," he said.

The majority of Philadelphians hate the soda tax, according to a new poll from the American Beverage Association. The group surveyed 600 likely Democratic primary voters about two weeks ago. But the poll also found it's not the main issue with voters.

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