Cigarette Tax Stalled; School Funding in Danger



This is why you don’t count your chickens until they’re hatched: Yes, both the Pennsylvania House and the Pennsylvania Senate have given approval to bills allowing Philly to raise its cigarette tax by $2 per pack to fund local schools — but they haven’t approved the same version of the bill so far. And that’s turning out to be a big problem.

The House version ran into a Senate buzzsaw on Tuesday — with the upper chamber balking at adding provisions in the bill that would allow some Pennsylvania cities to raise their hotel taxes. Senators began amending the House bill (it now includes a five-year sunset provision on the cigarette tax) but it’s uncertain the House will return from its break to pass the revised version — which, if not would leave Philly in limbo — or whether, in fact, it would approve those revisions: Certainly, it seems House Republicans will resist approving the additional hotel taxes. Which means getting the two chambers to back the same bill may be difficult.

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A Hollow Victory for Philly Schools

Dave Davies nailed it, as he so often does, when he described last week’s surprise deal enabling Philadelphia to tax cigarettes and send the proceeds to the schools as simultaneously “awful” and a “stunning, come-from-behind legislative win.”

The $2-a-pack cigarette tax looked dead right up until Wednesday night, when a surprise amendment offered by State Rep. John Taylor-the lone Republican in Philadelphia’s 34-strong delegation to Harrisburg-won enough support for the initiative to enable it to pass the tax-averse House. 119-90

Considering the alternative, there’s little doubt that this was a win for the city (and a reminder that a 100-percent Democratic delegation is clearly not in the city’s best interest). Parents, students and educators owe Taylor, the rest of the delegation, Mayor Nutter and Council President Clarke (all of whom lobbied hard for this) their gratitude.

But let’s look at what was won.

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Budget Omnibus: Pa. House Passes Cigarette Tax

Lots of moving parts to the state’s budget situation these days, so let’s try to take them in some semblance of order.

• First: The Pennsylvania House on Wednesday night authorized Philly’s cigarette tax, a measure designed to help fund city schools at something like full strength.  “The state House of Representatives voted 119-80 on Wednesday night to send the bill back to the Senate, which approved a similar version earlier this week,” AP reports. “Philadelphia officials say that imposing a $2 per-pack city tax on cigarette sales will help fill a crippling schools budget deficit. Without the money, they say schools won’t be fit to open in the fall.”

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Philly Cigarette Tax Stalls in PA House

House Republicans are refusing to amend a state budget bill to include authorization for a Philly cigarette tax that would help City Hall make up the shortfall in the city’s school budget. Mayor Nutter said Tuesday night’s result means Philly schools must prepare for layoffs.

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Philly Schools Pass Placeholder Budget

William Hite, Superintendent of Philadelphia Schools, in the Pennsylvania Capitol meeting with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and state legislators seeking funds for Philadelphia Schools during state budget talks Sunday, June 29, 2014, in Harrisburg, Pa. AP Photo | Bradley C. Bower

William Hite, Superintendent of Philadelphia Schools, in the Pennsylvania Capitol meeting with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and state legislators seeking funds for Philadelphia Schools during state budget talks Sunday, June 29, 2014, in Harrisburg, Pa. AP Photo | Bradley C. Bower

Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission is now playing a high-stakes game of chicken with the state.

Newsworks reports:

By unanimous vote, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission passed a budget Monday night that includes a $93 million placeholder for money that it hopes comes through if a political logjam in Harrisburg breaks.

Short of that, district leaders say they’d have to choose between laying off 1,300 employees, or shortening the school year.

The district can still avoid the bulk of these cuts if lawmakers in Harrisburg find a way to agree on a few key issues, chiefly, allowing Philadelphia to create a new $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes sold within city limits.

The Pennsylvania Senate did pass the cigarette bill on Monday but there’s apparently no current plans to bring it forward in the House.

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Philly Schools Held Hostage to Pension Vote

We told you Friday that Philly Democrats were being offered a choice — they could get school funding, but only if they tossed their labor union allies under the bus, either with a liquor privatization vote or support for a bill that will overhaul pensions for state workers. Over the weekend, the trade crystalized: Without support for the pension vote, Philly Dems can forget ed funding help.

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Do Philly Democrats Have to Choose Between Funding Schools or Liquor Privatization?

Philly Democrats are being offered a choice: You can get better funding for your schools, they’re being told in Harrisburg, but you’re going to have to sacrifice your union allies to get that funding — either in the form of a reformed pension system that would pay out less to state workers, or in the form of liquor privatization that state union oppose because they fear losing jobs.

And if they won’t compromise on either, well, good look with your constituents. Newsworks reports:

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My Son Is Getting a Great Education in Philly Public Schools

Photo Jun 15, 5 56 56 PM

At Greenfield, recess has corporate sponsors.

The school year ends this week, which makes it as good a time as any to offer this announcement: I’m really glad my son attended a Philadelphia Public School this year.

Scratch that, and let’s start over: I’m really glad my son attended a specific Philadelphia Public School this year — Greenfield Elementary School in Center City. Greenfield often ends up on the list of the city’s best public schools; it’s why my family stayed in our tiny little Fitler Square basement apartment when we’d otherwise have moved long ago — to give our son the best possible chance at a good and affordable education in the city.

And he got it: T started out with some challenges — his late summer birthday made him probably the youngest student in the school, with maturity to match. That didn’t make for an easy start to the school year. But a persistent tough-love approach from his teacher (something we tried to reinforce at home) helped get him in shape: By the end of this year he was grading well on the social aspects of school — and as for the academic aspects, well, all I know is this: My son is now reading books, at the end of kindergarten, that I didn’t get to until I was in second grade. And I was a good reader!

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Pennsylvania Creates Commission to Study New School Funding Formula

One thing Governor Tom Corbett and Philadelphians can agree on: The funding system for public schools in this state is broken. What we don’t know if they’ll agree on: Whatever recommendations the new Basic Education Funding Commission makes.

Corbett signed the bill, sponsored by Republican Bucks County Rep. Bernie O’Neill, which attempts to overhaul how school districts are funded. “Our current system is very antiquated and fails to recognize the differing needs of school districts with increasing or decreasing enrollment levels,” O’Neill said in a press release.

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