Cigarette-tax vote hits a Pa. legislative roadblock

Majority Whip Stan Saylor (R., York) takes his oath of office.The legislature reconvenes Jan. 24 for its first full week of work.
Majority Whip Stan Saylor (R., York) takes his oath of office.The legislature reconvenes Jan. 24 for its first full week of work. (BRADLEY C. BOWER / Associated Press)
Posted: August 01, 2014

HARRISBURG - The proposed new cigarette tax for Philadelphia may be hitting another legislative roadblock.

The House, on paper at least, is scheduled to return Monday and vote on a bill that would authorize the city to impose a $2-per-pack tax to raise money for its cash-strapped public schools.

But on Wednesday, Republicans who control the chamber were making frantic phone calls, trying to decide whether to postpone their return.

Hanging in the balance: Philadelphia schools, and whether they can open on time. Mayor Nutter, as well as city schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. have both said, unequivocally, that time was of the essence - and that if the legislature did not act swiftly, they would be unable to safely open schools in September.

"It's not a secret that we just finished a school year with very limited resources," said Fernando Gallard, spokesman for the Philadelphia School District. "Without this money, we'd have even fewer resources ... and it would be an open question mark what we can provide to students."

The hard-fought battle over the cigarette-tax proposal became a sticking point in the extended state budget talks a month ago.

Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, on Wednesday would say only, "We are still currently scheduled to be in session on Monday." He would not elaborate.

A decision on whether to keep or cancel Monday's session - and whether it would be rescheduled - is expected by week's end.

In the last few weeks, House leaders have heard from several antitax members, who are balking at returning from summer break just to vote on legislation calling for a new levy, according to interviews with Republican legislators.

Still other members have vacations that they say they cannot or will not cancel.

On Wednesday, another problem cropped up: whether there are enough votes to pass the bill.

Fueling that question was an unusual statement from two key Republican legislators from York - Majority Whip Stan Saylor and Seth Grove - complaining that the legislature was effectively handing Philadelphia a tax that would allow it to avoid raising property taxes, while failing to do anything to assist other school districts.

Grove said Wednesday that a cigarette-tax proposal that addresses only Philadelphia schools "leaves a bad taste in my mouth."

He said the proposal helped one corner of the state without addressing rising property taxes in districts elsewhere.

"I plan to advocate for a comprehensive approach," Grove said. "An overwhelming majority of members want to see a comprehensive solution."

Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) acknowledged in an interview that the House was having trouble "tracking 'yes' votes down," but said "those conversations are continuing."

"We don't want to hold kids hostage," said Vereb, who along with other Republicans from the Philadelphia suburbs have been pushing hard for a vote on the bill Monday. "We're trying to work it out."

Both Nutter and Hite have been clear about the urgent need for the money the tax will generate. The district wants the $2-per-pack levy to help fend off a $93 million budget gap.

Without it, Nutter has said, 1,300 employees would be laid off, and classrooms could swell to as many as 40 students.

The tax is expected to raise just over $80 million in the first full year.

"The School District is urging the legislators to come back and pass the cigarette tax to get a clean bill to the governor in order to get these crucial funds to the School District, which will allow us to open schools on time in the fall," said Gallard. "We are appreciative of the work and effort of the leaders of the House and Senate to move this legislation forward.

"We have expressed the urgency of this matter," he said, "and we truly believe and are hopeful that they will come back next week to pass this bill."


acouloumbis@phillynews.com

717-787-5934

@AngelasInk

Inquirer staff writers Martha Woodall and Gideon Bradshaw contributed to this article.

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