After a seesaw week of negotiations in Harrisburg, House legislators late Wednesday night passed, 119-80, an amended bill that allows Philadelphia to add a $2 per-pack tax on cigarettes to help fund the city's schools. The entire Philadelphia delegation supported the bill.
If approved by the Senate and Gov. Corbett, who have both supported the tax, the School District stands to gain as much as $45 million in the first year and about $80 million the year after, according to estimates. The tax should narrow the District's substantial 2014-15 budget gap to less than $40 million. Its approval was hailed as a victory by both elected officials and advocates for more school funding.
In a stunning, come-from-behind legislative win in Harrisburg, Mayor Nutter and backers of the beleaguered Philadelphia school system managed to get a key vote last night authorizing a cigarette tax in the city to fund the schools.
Without it, there was the prospect of 1,300 layoffs and schools not opening on time in September.
Pa. House OKs cigarette tax for schools. Inquirer
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Updated | July 3, 12:30 p.m.
Legislation that would enable Philadelphia to levy a $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by a 119-80 vote Wednesday night.
The vote came after a whirlwind of political deal-making and maneuvering by ideologically entrenched interests on both sides of the aisle.
Having escaped the House Rules Committee by unanimous consent, the cigarette tax bill faced a vote before the full House.
Pennsylvania House Republicans rebuffed an attempt to let Philadelphia impose a cigarette tax to help fund its city schools.
GOP leaders said Tuesday that the $2-a-pack levy was not related to the bill that Democrats were attempting to amend.
It was a setback for Mayor Nutter, who earlier that day had seen senators approve the tax authorization in a separate bill.
Philly cigarette tax rejected by House GOP. NewsWorks
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Along with many advocates, Mayor Nutter was back in Harrisburg on Tuesday lobbying for school funding.
The push continues because the "placeholder budget" for Philadelphia schools that was adopted Monday night includes a gap representing more than 3 percent of the total that must be closed either by securing additional revenues or by another round of deep cutbacks and layoffs.
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SRC adopts $2.6B 'placeholder' budget. Daily News
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Rather than commit to yet another round of layoffs and yet another increase in average class sizes, the School Reform Commission approved a $2.5 billion “placeholder” budget Monday evening that banks on $93 million that it doesn’t yet have.
With budget negotiations still underway in Harrisburg, District officials say they’re hoping legislators will soon come to an agreement and fill the gap.
“Hopefully, within the next week or so, we’ll have revenue,” said SRC Chairman Bill Green. “We’re really punting on difficult decisions by passing this placeholder budget.”
The School Reform Commission, in a special Monday evening meeting, unanimously adopted a budget for next school year without making deep cuts, even as last-minute negotiating in Harrisburg on the state budget and a cigarette tax means that funding levels for Philadelphia schools remain up in the air.
The SRC followed a path recommended by Mayor Nutter, who urged the commission to adopt a budget that "anticipates positive action from Harrisburg," and avoids cuts "so painful that they raise serious questions about whether it is safe to open schools." The District budget is balanced with a $93 million line labeled "Additional revenue or expense reduction."
In a letter today to the members of the School Reform Commission, Mayor Nutter urges the SRC "to refrain from passing a budget that would include cuts that are so painful that they raise serious questions about whether it is safe to open schools."
The SRC meets at 5:30 this evening to adopt a District budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year. Despite a legal deadline of May 31, commissioners postponed adoption of a budget last month, saying there was not sufficient revenue to pay for needed services.
Nutter's letter to the SRC says that if nothing changes in Harrisburg, the adoption of a state budget anticipated as soon as tonight could leave the District with a $93 million hole. Rather than cutting to eliminate this anticipated deficit, the mayor says, "I urge you to pass a budget that anticipates positive action from Harrisburg as they continue to work to finalize their budget."
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Mayor Nutter says there could be dire consequences if Harrisburg lawmakers do not approve creating a cigarette tax for Philadelphia.
"Without the $80 million-plus that would come from the cigarette tax, we would not be able to open schools in September safely," Nutter said.
If Harrisburg does not grant the city the authority to create the $2-per-pack cigarette tax, he said, there would have to be massive additional cuts to School District personnel.
Pennsylvania's Gov. Corbett says Democratic state lawmakers should pony up votes to pass a public pension overhaul bill if they want Philadelphia to be allowed to increase a tax on cigarettes for schools funding.
The Republican-controlled House and Senate have been unable to pass the pension proposal, one of the governor's top priorities.
"This is one where the Philadelphia delegation has the ability to help the School District of Philadelphia far more than any one delegation can," Corbett said during an impromptu press conference he held in his office Sunday.