Cautious optimism on final passage of cigarette tax

Posted: July 09, 2014

ABOUT A WEEK AGO, the Philadelphia cigarette tax to help fund city schools appeared dead in the General Assembly. By this afternoon, it could be headed to Gov. Corbett for his John Hancock.

A key member of the Philadelphia delegation in Harrisburg said yesterday that he is cautiously optimistic the measure will pass, with the state Senate expected to vote today on House Bill 1177 - the legislation that includes the cigarette tax. It would generate about $45 million for the distressed school district in the first year.

"While there's been a lot of backslapping and clapping and 'We finally got it done,' we have not gotten it done," state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who introduced the amendment for the cigarette tax, cautioned at a news conference yesterday with Mayor Nutter.

Williams said amendments stripped from the bill by the House could make passage in the Senate challenging, although not ultimately fatal. He also said some Philadelphia lawmakers were uncomfortable with language that would allow proposed charter operators to appeal to the state if rejected by the School Reform Commission. But he doesn't view that as a stumbling block to passage.

If the bill makes it to Corbett, Nutter said the governor has assured him he will sign it.

The anticipated revenue from the $2-per-pack tax would slash the district's $93 million deficit almost in half, leaving a gap of about $48 million.

Superintendent William Hite said a week ago that several options are being considered to close that projected shortfall, including a delay in the opening of schools, but Nutter all but ended that discussion yesterday.

"I'm very confident in saying this: Should things go in a positive way for us [today] with regards to the cigarette tax, I can tell you the schools will open on time," he said.

Nutter said that, given the recent actions in City Council and Harrisburg, "Over the next few weeks we might see a slightly more optimistic picture for the district, but we're still looking through all the numbers." He would not elaborate.

The district will likely be forced to make additional cuts to erase the deficit. Officials also hope to reach an agreement on a new contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers - its largest union - which could potentially save millions. No progress has been reported in those talks.

On Twitter: @ChroniclesofSol

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