Some in Pa. House wary of Phila. school aid

Posted: June 22, 2013

HARRISBURG - Top Republicans in the Capitol may be working hard behind the scenes to craft a rescue package for Philadelphia's financially troubled schools, but one key GOP bloc let it be known Thursday that a deal is far from certain.

Gov. Corbett, along with leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate, has been meeting for weeks with Mayor Nutter and the city's Democratic delegation in Harrisburg to assemble a plan to infuse tens of millions of dollars into the district's cash-starved coffers. Key elements include letting the city slap a $2-per-pack tax on cigarette sales and extending Philadelphia's extra 1 percent sales tax, with proceeds going to the schools.

Not so fast, says the Republican-controlled House.

The chamber has historically bristled at funneling more dollars to the city, and on Thursday, House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin signaled that Republican members, for the moment, are not committed to supporting even those measures, such as the cigarette tax, that do not involve increased state funding.

"We're open to discussions," Miskin told The Inquirer, "and we are aware of the Senate and the governor's efforts. But we haven't been convinced that all affected parties have done all they can to help solve the problem. . . . Until we see that, I can't say we will support it."

Miskin would not elaborate. But others in the party have said privately that the chamber's more conservative members would want to see substantive concessions from the district's labor unions before throwing their political weight behind helping the city's schools.

Complicating matters: some of those House members have taken no-tax pledges and would likely be automatic "no" votes on the legislation needed to enable Philadelphia to tax cigarette sales.

"I personally don't have a problem with it, but I understand it might be of some concern to folks in the House who might have taken a no-tax pledge," Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), one of the key negotiators in crafting a rescue plan, said Wednesday in an interview. He termed cigarettes "a convenience item that people can easily go to the surrounding counties to buy if they want to avoid the tax. I don't really think it's a burden on people. People have a choice."

A deal to reel in federal funds to aid the schools remains tenuous as well, even though U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) is working to make it happen.

As the Philadelphia Daily News reported Thursday, the Corbett administration is trying to persuade the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to forgive a debt of more than $100 million owed for several years of overpayments from one or more HHS programs.

If that slate were wiped clean, the state might be able to use those funds to help Philadelphia schools and perhaps other financially distressed districts.

The fact that Corbett has balked at opting for an expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act could be a snag, said sources familiar with the high-level talks. HHS is the federal department charged with implementing the act. Corbett has warned that accepting the Medicaid expansion would lead to much higher state costs in future years.

Even so, the Medicaid expansion, which Democrats such as State Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia have pushed for months, could provide a short-term federal infusion of up to $4 billion - which, Democrats say, could free up other state funds for schools.

For his part, Corbett has said he is committed to finding a long-term solution to the district's fiscal crisis. While not saying which elements of a rescue plan he might support, he, too, has stressed a need for concessions from the district's unions, and noted that School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. wants such concessions.

The district, facing a $304 million deficit in the fiscal year that begins July 1, has sent layoff notices to 3,859 teachers and staff. Hite is asking for $60 million more from the city, $120 million from the state, and $133 million in labor concessions, mostly from the teachers' union.


Contact Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.

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