Friday, December 26, 2014

Cigarette-tax vote canceled, imperiling Philly schools

Leaders in the Republican-controlled House announced Thursday that it will not reconvene next week as planned to vote on a bill that would authorize a $2-per-pack tax to help fund the city´s cash-strapped schools. (istock photo)
Leaders in the Republican-controlled House announced Thursday that it will not reconvene next week as planned to vote on a bill that would authorize a $2-per-pack tax to help fund the city's cash-strapped schools. (istock photo)

HARRISBURG - Legislators on Thursday canceled a vote on a new cigarette tax for Philadelphia, casting doubt on whether the city's schools would be able to safely open on time in September.

Ending days of rumors about the collapse of a hard-fought funding deal to again rescue Philadelphia schools, leaders in the Republican-controlled House announced they would not reconvene as planned next week to vote on the bill to authorize a $2-per-pack tax. City officials were counting on the money to close an $81 million budget gap.

Instead, the chamber will return when its summer break ends Sept. 15. House leaders said that in the interim, they will ask the Corbett administration to advance education money to the city's schools.

"We are working with the Senate and governor to ensure Philadelphia has the resources it needs to keep the schools open," House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) and Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) said in a statement.

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  • Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. called the news "devastating." He said any advance from Harrisburg - especially if it was just money the schools were already allocated to receive - might not be enough to avert layoffs and open the schools on time.

    The superintendent pledged to spend the next two weeks intensively lobbying state officials to return to Harrisburg.

    "I'm annoyed, disappointed, and frustrated," Hite told reporters at a briefing at district headquarters, "because we're at the point two weeks before we have to make decisions - operational decisions - to educate children."

    The district's 214 schools, which serve more than 131,000 children, are scheduled to open Sept. 8.

    In a statement, Mayor Nutter and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke urged legislators to reconsider canceling the session: "The City of Philadelphia requests that state lawmakers take action once again for the sake of our schoolchildren."

    Helen Gym, a district parent and activist, accused House leaders of forcing a crisis.

    "This is not a budget problem," said Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education. "This is just a cruel act against Philadelphia children - irrational and cruel."

    Recent reluctance

    The Inquirer this week reported new reluctance over returning to the Capitol just to vote on the cigarette-tax bill for Philadelphia, which was hammered out last month during budget negotiations.

    Some legislators didn't want to cut short their vacations to return for Monday's vote. Other lawmakers were concerned that giving Philadelphia authority to impose a cigarette levy was the equivalent of tax relief that other school districts would not get.

    A bill that benefits just Philadelphia "leaves a bad taste in my mouth," Rep. Seth Grove, a Republican from York, said Wednesday.

    It wasn't clear whether those doubts - or votes - could be overcome by the time legislators returned next month.

    In their statement Thursday, Smith and Turzai also cited disagreements about other items added to the cigarette-tax bill. The two leaders said those issues, including proposed hotel taxes for other counties in the state, had not been fully vetted - although they have been part of budget negotiations for at least a month.

    Still, Smith and Turzai said that advancing state dollars was "nothing new." They noted that Gov. Corbett transferred $400 million to Philadelphia in the last fiscal year.

    'The ultimate goal'

    A spokesman for Corbett, who has supported the cigarette-tax plan, said Thursday that an advance to the city was under consideration, but that it would not help ease the district's long-term financial problems.

    "The ultimate goal here should be that we can open the doors on the first day of school, avoid any layoffs, and ensure that there is a long-term funding plan for the district," said Jay Pagni.

    The tax is expected to raise just over $80 million in the first full year. Without it, Nutter has said, 1,300 school employees would be laid off, and classrooms could swell to as many as 40 students.

    Hite has said layoff notices would go out Aug. 15.

    Philadelphia Democrats who had pushed hard for the funding, including Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams and Rep. Cherelle L. Parker, urged their colleagues in Harrisburg to return and take up the bill. "This is an embarrassment of historic proportions," Williams said.

    Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.), one of the tax's most vocal proponents, called the cancellation "unacceptable" and added that he believed it demonstrated the state's inability and lack of commitment to run Philadelphia's schools. The state has run the Philadelphia school system since 2002 through the five-member School Reform Commission.

    Perhaps, said Hughes, the federal government should oversee the district.

    "The School District is barely providing an adequate educational environment, and nowhere near providing a 21st-century educational environment," said Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

    Rep. Bill Adolph, the Delaware County Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said he was "extremely disappointed" that the vote collapsed. In a statement, he said the cigarette tax for Philadelphia should have been treated as "an isolated issue and voted on its own merits."

    Adolph said he was optimistic for a resolution. But, he noted, "time is of the essence."


    acouloumbis@phillynews.com

    717-787-5934

    @AngelasInk

    Inquirer staff writer Troy Graham contributed to this article.

    Angela Couloumbis and Martha Woodall Inquirer Staff Writers
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