Philly schools counting on cigarette-tax pingpong match to end

 (Emma Lee/WHYY)

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

Will the pingpong game finally come to a rest?

That’s the question Philadelphia education advocates are asking as Pennsylvania’s Legislature reconvenes Monday and promises to again consider authorizing a $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes sold within city limits to help fund schools.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai assured district leaders in August they could count on cigarette tax revenue by October.

That promise followed a summer of legislative pingpong in which the bill bounced between the House and Senate largely because of disputes about amendments unrelated to taxing Philadelphia cigarettes.

Turzai spokesman Steve Miskin said the House will strip those ancillary provisions out in a rules committee meeting Monday and then take up a clean bill Wednesday.

“Everyone’s goal is to get this legislation to the governor’s desk as quickly as possible,” he said.

If it gets there, Gov. Tom Corbett has promised to sign it.

A potential problem is that Senate leaders may want to stick with the bill as they’ve already passed it. That iteration includes provisions that allow hotel taxes to be hiked in counties such as York, and allows cities including Scranton and Erie to apply for community revitalization improvement zone or CRIZ funding.

The House leadership dislikes both provisions. Expanding CRIZ eligibility could cost the state general fund $70 million.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia School District leaders are hoping these disagreements don’t again gum up the works. If cigarette tax revenue doesn’t start flowing by Oct. 1, the resource-deficient district will need to make additional cuts. That could include laying off more than 1,000 employees – causing class sizes to skyrocket districtwide.

Have lawmakers taken that threat seriously?

“In my opinion, no,” said Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, who authored the cigarette tax bill.

Lawmakers outside of the Philadelphia area, he said, don’t have constituents demanding action on the matter.

“They’re not quite driven as we are to deal with it,” he said. “Otherwise, I think we would have come back to fix this in July or August.”

The school district loses potential funding every week that the cigarette tax isn’t in effect.

Erik Arneson, spokesman for the Senate Republican leadership, said he could not add specific comment until the House takes definitive action.

If the House moves the bill this week, Arneson said, the Senate would consider it Sept. 22.

In theory, if the Senate rubber-stamps the House version and Corbett immediately signs it, cigarette tax revenue could start flowing by Oct. 6.

School district officials believe the tax will generate $49 million for schools this year.

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