Cigs for kids is leadership?

SHUTTERSTOCK
SHUTTERSTOCK
Posted: July 08, 2014

LET'S TALK about governing and leadership.

And no smart-aleck remarks like, "Well, if you mean in Philly or Harrisburg, there isn't much to talk about."

Don't be a cynic. That's my job.

Why, just last week, Philly folks managed to get Harrisburg to allow increasing the local cigarette tax $2 per pack to raise money for city schools.

OK, it's not settled. Some legislative hoops remain. Gov. Corbett, who seems to have writer's cramp, needs to sign it. And it doesn't come close to closing the district's deficit.

But, hey, it's a victory, right? Another disaster averted. And what better way to fund schools than with a cigarette tax?

That's governing and leadership.

Maybe Mayor Nutter, City Council and the School Reform Commission can fund SEPTA full-bus ad wraps: "Smoke More Cigs, Help Our Kids" or "Fill Your Lungs for Learning."

It's a great plan with almost certain sustainability.

City smokers can feel civic pride saving schools by paying more for smokes. Why drive to the next county or buy bootleg from the back of a van?

And, if correctly marketed, our leaders can get more people to smoke: "If you care about your children, pick up a pack. Make caring a habit."

Plus, there's a nice policy dovetail here.

The budget awaiting Corbett's signature transfers $230 million-plus from the Tobacco Settlement Fund, one of many transfers holding the budget together. A smoke-more drive might be helped with less spending on smoking cessation.

Corbett supports a cig-tax plan and did so last year. Why not? It's funding (estimated around $80 million annually) he doesn't have to come up with.

But this year, he tried to link its passage to votes for pension reform.

He said if Philly lawmakers gave him pension votes, they'd get the cig tax: "If there is a positive pension reform vote, then there would be a positive cigarette-tax vote . . . it's in their hands."

There was no positive pension vote. Yet there were positive cig-tax votes.

So either Corbett didn't mean what he said, didn't know what he was saying or doesn't understand how deals work.

But wait. His press secretary, Jay Pagni, now says this "shouldn't be seen as an either/or proposition," and that the cig tax "was never tied, per se," to pensions.

In the same way, I guess, Corbett's leadership skills are not bad, "per se."

There's no question that pension costs eat education dollars at alarming rates.

Philly data show that the district paid $847 million in salaries in the 2012-13 school year and $101 million in pension costs. They also show that salary costs dramatically dropped three years in a row as pension costs dramatically increased.

But pension reform doesn't look likely in an election year.

And that's central to the overall problem, part of the reason we have no real governing or leadership.

You can argue merits of a budget.

Matt Brouillette, of the right-leaning Commonwealth Foundation, calls a no-tax budget an "excellent way to maintain what we think are some good developments in job growth."

Sharon Ward, of the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, calls the budget "a house of cards built on one-time revenue that's going to collapse."

But ideology aside, no sensate person can argue this: Leadership in Philly and Harrisburg is short-sighted, self-protective and gutless.

It's driven by the interests, unions and business lobbies that sustain it. It produces, at best, maintenance.

Year after year, it ignores the same problems, whether inadequate school funding or crushing pension costs, opting for temporary fixes to perpetual problems.

A former local lawmaker says that watching is like being a fan of a perennially losing sports team: "You watch and hope - only to be disappointed yet again."

And what do our leaders say? "Smoke 'em if ya got 'em."


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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