No Cig Tax, But State Leaders Promise School Support

Officials skeptical of a cash advance from Harrisburg.

Another day on the brink for Philly schools: Activists and officials headed to Harrisburg on Monday — the day the Pennsylvania House was supposed to approve a cigarette tax to fund city schools — to rally and lobby state officials for the funding authority.

They didn’t get what they were looking for.

Philadelphia Public School Notebook reports:

After a fruitless meeting of Pennsylvania legislative leaders and the Corbett administration, a cigarette tax for Philadelphia city schools remains in limbo.

But House Speaker Sam Smith said Philadelphia’s leaders should trust that state lawmakers can pass the cigarette tax this fall.

“If it’s really about doing what’s best for the kids, well, the best thing for the kids would be to utilize the tools that are available to open the schools on time,” said Smith, R-Jefferson.

The “tools that are available” are a cash advance on state funding — essentially, money that’s already been promised to the district, but sooner, with a cigarette tax maybe approved in September. Philly school officials say that’s nice, but they don’t want to open school without the additional funding source of a cigarette tax in place — otherwise layoffs or a shortened school year might occur.

Gov. Corbett wants Philly schools to accept that scenario. The Inquirer explains:

Gov. Corbett on Monday signaled that he was willing to advance millions of dollars in state education money to Philadelphia schools to ensure that they open on time next month.

“This is about putting children of Philadelphia first,” spokesman Jay Pagni said. “The governor is prepared, if need be, to advance funding once the final request is made of him.”

“The problem with this is, it’s not new money,” said Mayor Nutter’s spokesman, Mark McDonald. “What the School District needs is new additional funds.”

Newsworks followed two busloads of Philadelphia parents and students who came to rally at the mostly empty Capitol on Monday:

Gretchen Cowell, mom to two kids educated in Philly schools, says she took off work for this rally in a mostly empty Capitol building.

“The Legislature is taking an extended, monthlong vacation, and as far as I can tell, I mean, they both passed the cigarette tax, but it wasn’t exactly the same, so they had to conference and work on it,” she said. “They’re not willing to do that until after the school year starts, and it’s a big mess.”

Meanwhile, the Legislature is drawing increasing criticism from across the state. On Monday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorialized its displeasure with the House for leaving the cigarette tax business unfinished, to the detriment of Philly students. Today, Scranton’s Times Tribune  does the same.

Failing to address the Philadelphia schools’ immediate problem is an extension of failing to resolve Pennsylvania schools’ persistent one. Prior to not dealing with the Philadelphia cigarette tax, lawmakers wasted another year not dealing with local property tax reform, corporate tax reform, pension reform and other matters that contribute to soaring property taxes and inadequate school revenues.

Many taxpayers wonder why the state casino industry has not produced substantial property tax reductions as pro-gambling politicians had promised. The state share of the casino take has indeed funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to school districts for property tax mitigation, an average of about $180 per year per property. The problem, as recently detailed by The Tribune-Review of Pittsburgh, is that school property taxes have escalated well beyond that.

So lawmakers not only should get back to Harrisburg to help ensure the timely opening of Philadelphia’s schools, but to tackle the ignored long-term policy issues that result in millions of Pennsylvanians being held hostage to ever-rising school property taxes.

More to come.