Pa. Senate committee OKs a Philly cigarette tax

 Philadelphia's City Council has already passed a $2 tax on every pack of cigarettes, but it still needs state approval.

Philadelphia's City Council has already passed a $2 tax on every pack of cigarettes, but it still needs state approval.

A proposed tax on cigarettes in Philadelphia, which critics once called D.O.A., just moved one step closer to reality.

The Pennsylvania Senate Finance Committee gave the preliminary OK to a bill Tuesday that would allow the city government to enact a $2 tax on every pack of cigarettes.

Philadelphia’s City Council has already approved the tax, but it still neeeds state authorization. It would raise an estimated $45 million for the city’s troubled schools next fiscal year.

The state bill now heads to the Senate’s appropriations committee. If successful, it could go before the full Senate this week.

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Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, does not object to the proposal.

If the bill makes it to the House, it will face serious obstacles. 

House GOP spokesman Stephen Miskin said Republicans in that chamber want something from the Philadelphia teachers’ union before they consider the bill.

“The Federation of Teachers needs to come to the table,” he said, “and act like every other Pennsylvania family, pay into their health care, and make some other concessions. This is about getting the money into the classrooms.”

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan is refusing to make concessions by the state’s June 30 budget deadline. And he isn’t doing pay cuts, period. He said that teachers in nearby districts earn higher salaries than Philadelphia’s teachers, despite working in less difficult situations.

The union’s contract expires Aug. 31.

Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, D-Philadelphia, said it is unfair to make education funding contingent on labor givebacks. 

“All the conversation with regard to the contract needs to wait ’til August,” he said. “I think it only is incendiary. I think it’s dangerous.”

The school district’s budget crisis

Without more money, Superintendent William Hite said schools will open in September without assistant principals, guidance counselors, librarians, secretaries, sports and arts programs. Earlier this month, the school district started giving layoff notices to about 3,850 employees, or 20 percent of its workforce.

In order to close the district’s $304 million budget gap, Hite has asked for an additional $60 million from the city, an extra $120 million from the state, and $133 million in labor givebacks.

The city will exceed that request if the state authorizes the cigarette tax, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter makes good on his promise to send $28 million to the schools by improving tax collections. 

State officials are in talks about finding federal dollars for Philadelphia’s schools, though that plan has been called a “Hail Mary.” The current House GOP budget would provide an additional $1.5 million for the district.

Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said he is pleased that the cigarette tax is moving forward. But he doesn’t think that’s enough. He wants the state to chip in, too.

“It’s important to have the tools to raise money locally,” he said. “But you cannot abdicate the governor from his responsibility to find additional state support to help support the education system in Philadelphia.”

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