Phila. Dems link cigarette tax to transportation

Posted: October 19, 2013

HARRISBURG Philadelphia Democrats are trying to use their influence over a multibillion-dollar transportation funding bill to get Republican support for a cigarette tax to fund city schools.

The strategy is an eleventh-hour effort - though some say an unlikely one - to revive a plan for a $2-per-pack tax that could provide a stream of money for Philadelphia's struggling school district.

The Democrats, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said they alerted House Republicans and the Corbett administration that in return for legislative approval of the tax, they would support a pending bill to provide more than $2 billion for roads, bridges, and mass transit.

Rep. Cherelle L. Parker (D., Phila.), who heads the delegation, said Thursday that more transportation money is essential - but she called helping the School District "a priority."

Parker would not say if the delegation would hold out on approving transportation funding, but said most of the city's 26 House Democrats want a "sustainable and recurring revenue source" for Philadelphia schools.

"This is about raw politics," said another ranking Philadelphia Democrat, who asked not to be identified for fear of angering Republicans. "Are we going to use this opportunity to help the kids, or are we going to squander it?"

The delegation's strategy is simple. Gov. Corbett is running for reelection next year, has sagging approval ratings, and needs a win on transportation. House Republicans are trying to craft a plan, but need Democrats to provide votes for it.

Philadelphia's Democratic delegation remains a key voting bloc, if only for its size.

Some Philadelphia Democrats doubt that a cigarette tax will be a reliable source of money, saying it could push smokers to buy cigarettes outside the city. "I just don't believe the proposed cigarette tax is a sustainable source of revenue," said Rep. Michael H. O'Brien (D., Phila.).

And Republicans do not appear to be taking the bait.

"I don't think there is any interest right now in looking at any further taxes," said House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin, noting that the Legislature over the summer approved extending Philadelphia's sales tax as part of a larger schools rescue plan.

At the time, many city legislators tried to push a cigarette tax, but the GOP-controlled House bristled at funneling more dollars to the city. Corbett and GOP leaders in the Senate have said they are open to the tax.

Earlier this week, Corbett announced that he would release $45 million for city schools. Though there were reports that the governor did so to gain political goodwill on transportation funding, several city Democrats said that they would be foolish to give Corbett votes on transportation in return for funds that had been approved.



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