Corbett, legislators to meet on Phila. cigarette tax

Posted: August 03, 2014

Gov. Corbett took a step Friday to revive the imperiled proposal for a cigarette tax that would help fund Philadelphia schools, but legislators signaled that they were not likely to reconsider the measure before next month.

Corbett's office said the governor had scheduled a meeting Monday with leaders from the Republican-controlled House and Senate to discuss both the $2-per-pack levy for Philadelphia and pension reform - two unresolved issues that were sticking points in budget negotiations last month.

But Corbett still had not decided Friday if he will give Philadelphia an advance on its allotted education funds - money that city officials say they need to open its 214 schools safely, on time, and without layoffs.

A day after a planned vote on the cigarette tax collapsed, lawmakers offered varied explanations and predictions. The bill, which would have authorized the city to raise the tax and use it to close an $81 million budget gap, had support from Republicans in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

But GOP lawmakers from other parts butted heads over pork-filled Senate amendments - and expressed concern that they would again have to bail out Philadelphia schools with little to show for their own districts. Some House Republicans also were out of state or addressing health concerns and did not want to or could not return to Harrisburg, officials said.

"There is pushback within the Republican rank and file for a Philadelphia-only approach," said Rep. Seth Grove (R., York). "If you're a legislator sitting anywhere else in the state and voted through a Philly cigarette tax, what do your constituents think?"

He also said that some lawmakers were concerned the proposed tax could prompt smokers to buy their cigarettes outside the city and ultimately generate less than the $93 million projected, leading the district to ask for more money.

Rep. Brian Ellis (R., Butler) said the legislature spends the entire year struggling to find ways to fund education across the state.

"The reality is, we've continued to give more and more and more to Philadelphia schools than my school districts get here in Butler County," he said. "The legislative process by nature is a give-and-take process. And without that give-and-take process, there's no reason to go back to Harrisburg until September."

The House vote was canceled one day before the release of a report by the conservative Commonwealth Foundation that criticized the proposed cigarette tax. The report, issued Friday, said "throwing more money at a failing system is not the answer," given a $1 billion increase in spending over 10 years and continually failing test scores.

Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), said Friday that the Senate amendments, which offer specific hotel taxes and aid to some counties and towns, lacked strong support and threatened the bill.

He said House members needed more time to debate those add-ons - among themselves and the Senate - before voting.

He said the House would take up the matter when it reconvenes on Sept. 15. He noted that Corbett could advance state funds to the School District to help defray costs - about $6 million of the district's $2.8 billion budget - while House and Senate leaders hash out their differences.

Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) said lawmakers "are taking this very seriously and not playing games" with children's lives.

"There's a lot of moving parts here, and we all need to take a step back and realize that we can get this done in September," he said.

Fernando Gallard, spokesman for the School District, said Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. was in contact with legislators and "will continue to lobby - as he has done today - for the foreseeable future."

Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.) said he was stunned when Turzai told him some House members did not want to cut their vacations short "just for Philadelphia."

"We are a full-time legislature," Williams said. "I don't know how anybody can get away with saying we are not coming back, we are on vacation. We are the state's legislature. We respond to every school district in the commonwealth. It does not matter if it happens to be summertime, wintertime, Christmas vacation."


bfinley@phillynews.com

610-313-8118 @Ben_Finley

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