On June 23rd, the Senate Local Government Committee, which I chair, was scheduled to host a bipartisan public hearing to examine the pros and cons of the recently enacted Philadelphia Beverage Tax at the request of Senator Anthony Williams – a Democrat who represents part of Philadelphia. The new tax places a 1.5 cent per ounce tax on sugary beverages and related products purchased in Philadelphia.
At Senator Williams’ request, the committee reached out to both supporters and opponents to weigh the various aspects of this controversial new tax. Dr. Paul Mather of the American Heart Association was scheduled to be the first presenter. His written testimony concluded with, “I urge the committee and the community to support Philadelphia’s sugary drink tax.”
Before Dr. Mather could present his testimony to Senate Republicans and Democrats assembled in Philadelphia’s City Hall Council Chambers, a group of unruly protesters began shouting and obstructed the committee from holding its public hearing. The protesters are in favor of the new tax, something Dr. Mather planned to speak at great length about, including the negative health impact of sugary drinks and the importance of Pre-K programs in the City of Philadelphia, which is one of the beneficiaries of the new beverage tax.
Today’s political dialogue, or lack thereof, is extremely troubling. Picture this: A Philadelphia Democrat invites a York County Republican, who chairs a Senate committee, to hold a public hearing to learn more about an issue of significant importance to city residents. Instead of thought-provoking debate and reasoned discourse, a display of rare bipartisan outreach became just another opportunity for empty theatrics and the silencing of opposing views.
I am skeptical when one side tries to shut down debate — especially at an event that included formal testimony submitted by the Mayor and City Council President, both of whom support this tax. Are we now at a point in society that we cannot even host a civilized public hearing to learn about all sides to an issue?
During the protest, several children who benefit from the Pre-K programs in the city were shuttled into the room to serve as props for the protesters. These children were forced to witness politics at its absolute worst.
Are we to lead our children to believe that if you disagree with someone else’s point of view, the appropriate response is to shout at them until they leave? Unfortunately, the spectacle they witnessed will leave them with an impression that this is the norm in public discourse today.
I would want those children to know that despite differences we may have with one another, we can work together to achieve real results.
Case in point: Senator Anthony Williams and I are from different political parties, yet we came together to lead the effort on “Clean Slate” legislation, which would automatically seal criminal records of minor offenses after 10 years in order to help citizens statewide seek gainful employment and become productive members of society. This is not a Republican or Democrat issue – this is an issue that makes sense to a lot of people. I see it from a private-sector perspective – it will break down a barrier many men and women face when trying to secure a job or a better paying job. Pennsylvania would be on the forefront of this sort of reform.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen that legislation advance with broad bipartisan support of our colleagues in the Senate. This is an example of what happens when reasonable people can come together to find solutions.
Unfortunately, the theatrics that played out in Philadelphia’s City Hall on June 23rd were anything but reasonable.
The children who had to witness the nonsense should realize that we can come together, share ideas, debate and disagree in a reasonable manner, and come up with solutions that can have a positive impact on the lives of Pennsylvanians.