Corbett signature makes Philly cigarette tax official

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 Flanked by Gov. Tom Corbett, right, and School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green, Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite expresses his elation after the governor signed the Philadelphia cigarette tax bill into law Wednesday. (Mary Wilson/WHYY)

Flanked by Gov. Tom Corbett, right, and School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green, Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite expresses his elation after the governor signed the Philadelphia cigarette tax bill into law Wednesday. (Mary Wilson/WHYY)

Gov. Tom Corbett has signed a long-awaited measure to let Philadelphia levy a tax on cigarettes beginning next month to raise money for its schools.

Supporters heralded the bipartisan effort of Pennsylvania lawmakers to allow Philadelphia to levy a $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes. The tax, along with a city sales tax increase and borrowing, will help the school district bridge an $81 million deficit.

“We’re thrilled and, for the first time while in Harrisburg, I’m actually smiling and celebrating,” said district Superintendent William Hite at a bill-signing ceremony Wednesday. A lobbyist leading the effort to pass the proposal let out a happy whoop.

The measure also contains a change allowing city charter schools to go to the state to appeal rejected applications. House Republicans insisted on the provision, already wary of appearing to bail out Philadelphia schools by allowing higher taxes.

Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, said he’s “grateful” the cigarette tax is finally law. But with Corbett on his left, Williams said education spending across the state remains a problem, with a funding formula and other reforms at its root.

“I’m not elated. I’m not kicking up my heels. I’m not clapping applause, I’m not patting myself on the back,” said Williams, who is expected to launch a bid for mayor soon. “Because for all the niceties … there’s a lot more work that needs to be done to get a first-class education.”

Behind him, Hite nodded.

Philadelphia officials pushed for passage of the cigarette tax before the start of the school year. The measure was bogged down by unrelated items, such as an expansion of an economic development program and hotel taxes for other counties. Those provisions were removed.

The cigarette tax is effective Oct. 1. It will also apply to little cigars.

Many have voiced concerns that a higher cigarette tax in Philadelphia could be avoided easily by consumers who are able to cross the county line to buy smokes. State Revenue Secretary Dan Meuser said such behavior is assumed to eat into revenue collections. The tax would ideally bring Philadelphia $60 million annually.

“The slippage could be as much as 10 percent of that, maybe even 15,” Meuser said. “It’s how effectively we drive home the fact that this is something that needs to be remitted and collected and the enforcement that we apply.”

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