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Cigarette tax vote canceled; schools' opening in jeopardy

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Pennsylvania House Republicans have canceled a planned session on Monday to vote on a $2-a-pack cigarette tax in Philadelphia, jeopardizing the next school year for tens of thousands of students.

"Here we are again," said a frustrated Superintendent William Hite at a hastily called news conference Thursday afternoon.

Schools are now only weeks away from their scheduled opening day, but without assurances that the District will have enough funds to operate a functional system, much less one that offers an acceptable education.

The same thing happened last year, and the city's schools still don't have a guarantee of reliable, recurring revenue sufficient to their needs.

Hite, Mayor Nutter, and City Council President Darrell Clarke all called the cancellation of the vote "devastating." House Republicans said they would come back on Sept. 15 instead, but Hite says he needs assurances of the money by Aug. 15 in order to forestall all kinds of operational decisions, including up to 1,300 layoffs.

"We support Dr. Hite's belief that ensuring schools are safe and adequately staffed is more important than opening schools as planned on Sept. 8," Nutter and Clarke said in a joint statement.

In making the decision, House Republicans urged Gov. Corbett to advance money to the District, but Hite said that might be no help.

"I don't know what that advance means," he said. If it is simply advancing money earlier, rather than an infusion of new funds, "that doesn't help us. ... We still need $81 million. Otherwise, we're spending money we don't have." 

Nutter and Clarke also said that they appreciated "the House’s well-intentioned idea," but cautioned that "it does nothing to address the substantial budget gap" that the cigarette tax would help close. It is expected to raise about $45 million in 2014-15 and around $80 million once fully operational for a full fiscal year.

Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai and Speaker Sam Smith, said: “We believe that advancing the money to ensure that Philly is able to open the schools will alleviate the problem until legislation is passed.”

Nutter, however, said the House must come back and "do their job."

City Council passed the cigarette tax more than a year ago and has waited this long for the required state authorization. The legislature declined for months to take a vote -- then loaded up the bill approving the tax with unrelated but controversial riders that split the House and Senate.

The two houses were unable to resolve their differences before leaving Harrisburg for their summer recess.

"I'm annoyed, disappointed, frustrated," Hite said. "We're trying to educate children. I'm annoyed that, once again, this is in somebody else's hands, someone else is making the determination for what we do here in Philadelphia to serve our children. It's frustrating as you're trying to educate the young people of this city that, once again, for whatever reason, it's taken for granted that we can make do without the resources we need."

Education advocates still planned to go to Harrisburg on Monday, said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

Cooper, who was a policy adviser to former Gov. Ed Rendell, said that they would protest outside Turzai's office.  

"It's outrageous that the Philadelphia School District is being held hostage by an internecine fight within the Republican Party," Cooper said.

Some legislators balked at interrupting their vacations to act on something that affected only Philadelphia and not schools in their own districts, according to the Inquirer.

One of the provisions added to the cigarette tax bill by the Senate imposes a hotel tax in York County. The House took out that provision. State Rep. Stan Saylor of York, the House majority whip, said that he can't vote for the bill unless that is put back in. York County has eight representatives, and if they all refused to attend the session, it would imperil the bill's chance of passing. 

“I’m not opposed to supporting Philadelphia cigarette tax for their schools," he said. "My problem has been with taking out the other economic development stuff that pertains to my county.”

Turzai and Smith also issued a statement saying that "we are working with the Senate and governor to ensure Philadelphia has the resources it needs to keep the schools open."

Cooper said that House Appropriations Committee Chair William Adolph of Delaware County has been working hard to get the body back for a vote on the cigarette tax, so far to no avail.

"It’s unfathomable to me that Turzai would care that much about a hotel tax in York County to put at risk the opening of the Philadelphia School District in September," she said.

"Personal agendas are trumping everything. That they don't care enough about what's happening here in Philadelphia and that this fight can trump the possibility that children go to school is completely outrageous."

State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Philadelphia Democrat, said that the Senate stood ready to come back and approve the House bill.

"This lack of action is catastrophic," Hughes said.

Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education said the group would explore legal options and called the House's inaction "a planned sabotage of our children, our schools and our city" and a "purposeful act of cruelty and neglect."

Hite tried to be optimistic, saying that there are still two weeks left before he has to pull the trigger on major decisions like layoffs.

He has said that without closing the $81 million gap, which will just get the District back to what he called this year's "wholly insufficient" levels, class sizes in high schools could exceed 40 students and there may be even fewer nurses, counselors, and support staff.

"We're not asking for any other place in the state to tax themselves in order to provide more resources for the children of this city. This is Philadelphia asking for the ability to begin a tax that it already approved," he said.

"I implore these individuals to come back to approve that legislation."

 

Video by Dorian Geiger.

Kevin McCorry of NewsWorks contributed reporting.

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Dale Mezzacappa

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Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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