No cigarette tax vote, but promise for funds to tide Philly schools over

After a fruitless meeting of Pennsylvania legislative leaders and the Corbett administration, a cigarette tax for Philadelphia city schools remains in limbo.

But despite the lack of legislative deal, work continues on sending the struggling school district a funding advance that will allow doors to open on time, lawmakers said.

 

A spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett said Monday that there is no amount or date set for the funding advance, which could help the Philadelphia School District with cash flow problems, but not fill its budget gap.

The city is seeking the authority to impose a $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes to generate funds allowing the district to begin the school year on time.

A district spokesman said the school district will wait until Aug. 15 to decide whether the schools that opening will happen.

But House Speaker Sam Smith said Philadelphia’s leaders should trust that state lawmakers can pass the cigarette tax this fall.

“If it’s really about doing what’s best for the kids, well, the best thing for the kids would be to utilize the tools that are available to open the schools on time,” said Smith, R-Jefferson.

Legislative leaders have said they will be able to pass the cigarette tax bill in September. Because negotiations over the proposal didn’t begin until late June, and it became a vehicle for peripheral issues, they said passage this month was impossible.

The delay prompted two busloads of parents and students to travel Monday to Harrisburg to express frustration with a legislative process they find unnecessarily obtuse.

Gretchen Cowell, mom to two kids educated in Philly schools, says she took off work for this rally in a mostly-empty Capitol building.

“The Legislature is taking an extended, monthlong vacation, and as far as I can tell, I mean, they both passed the cigarette tax, but it wasn’t exactly the same, so they had to conference and work on it,” she said. “They’re not willing to do that until after the school year starts, and it’s a big mess.”

City, state and school district officials also have condemned the delay and rebuked the lawmakers responsible.

And district Superintendent William Hite has said not receiving the tax authorization by mid-August could prompt a not only a late school year, but layoffs and larger class sizes.

In a statement late yesterday, educational advocacy groups Philadelphia School Partnership and PennCAN struck a more conciliatory note.

“Nobody likes that the final cigarette vote is delayed until next month. But safe passage in September is better than coming up a few votes shy in August. The bulk of revenue from the smoking tax was always going to come in the second half of the fiscal year,” it said.

“It has been a long, hard summer for Philadelphia schools. Now is the time to support Gov. Corbett, the General Assembly — Republicans and Democrats — and city and school district leaders as they work together to ensure schools open on time and ready to teach.”

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Harrisburg in mid-September. Philadelphia schools had been scheduled to open Sept. 8.

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