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Will Philly delegation 'play ball' on budget to win dollars for city schools?

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Facing a $66 million budget shortfall that threatens to turn schools into "empty shells," the Philadelphia School District has turned its efforts for additional funding to Harrisburg.

But lawmakers there are grappling with a $1.4 billion hole in their own budget, and the District's budget woes are but one of many legislative pieces maneuvering on the chessboard.

With mere days remaining before the state's June 30 budget deadline, the halls of the state Capitol are abuzz with politicking and strategy.

Education advocates lobbying on behalf of Philadelphia schoolchildren have a wish list:

Allow Philadelphia to put a $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes sold within the city, keep the additional education funding that Gov. Corbett proposed in February (the Philadelphia School District has been counting on $39 million of this) and, while you're at it, levy a broader tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling and save money by accepting the federal Medicaid expansion.

"I always try to educate people to the reality of it, and the reality of it can be very frustrating," said State Rep. Pam DeLissio, (D-Philadelphia).

DeLissio says she's had a few tense conversations with her Northwest Philadelphia constituents whose overarching concern is education funding.

"Unless people understand the reality of sort of how it works up here," she said, it's difficult to "get what you want done."

The proposed Philadelphia cigarette tax is a prime example of Harrisburg politics at work.

That tax, which Philadelphia City Council passed last spring, is expected to generate at least $40 million in its first year and double that for years to come, all going to Philly education.

For the last year, it's been a non-starter in Harrisburg.

But it's recently found increased momentum after the consistent lobbying efforts of Superintendent William Hite, School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green, Mayor Nutter, City Council President Darrell Clarke, the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and an assortment of advocacy groups.

According to many politicians interviewed for this story, passing the measure will require what Clarke has called "horse trading and bartering."

"Republicans have basically said, 'There are things that you're interested in, and there's things that we're interested in,'" said State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D-Philadelphia). "And so we have to compromise."

Republicans would like to reform the state's pension system, which is underfunded by $50 billion.

In the plan that Corbett's administration favors, new state employees would move to a hybrid retirement system that would offer a traditional pension with a defined-contribution, 401k-style plan on top. This would save as much as $11 billion over the next 30 years. Existing state employees would not be affected because of a grandfather clause.

Leading Republicans in the House have also been pushing to privatize the state's liquor store system.

"If Philadelphia Democrats aren't going to be there for what needs to be done, then nobody's going to be there for them," said state Budget Secretary Charles Zogby. "And they can go home and tell their constituents why they couldn't get money for the School District."

Both deals are toxic for labor unions, which, along with education advocates, make up a key bastion of the Democratic Party's base.

So does this pose a Faustian dilemma to Philly Democrats?

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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Kevin McCorry

Kevin is WHYY/NewsWorks' senior education writer.

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