Pa. lawmakers fail to vote on cigarette tax crucial to Philly schools

 (Emma Lee/WHYY)

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

State lawmakers are scrapping plans to approve a cigarette tax for Philadelphia city schools this summer and, in the meantime, they’re asking the governor to send the school district a cash advance.

Philadelphia’s mayor called it a disgrace.

The state House and Senate can’t agree on a bill that includes authorization for Philadelphia to pass a $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes to help fund its school system.

A planned vote next week in the House was cancelled, leaving the district without the injection of funds it was seeking.

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Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and schools Superintendent William Hite say that without additional funding in mid-August, the school year will begin late, class sizes will increase, and about 1,300 school employees will be laid off.

Nutter was furious Thursday.

“Philadelphia schools will not be able to open on time and safely because [lawmakers] chose not to come and do their jobs,” he said.

“The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who in the time of moral crisis do nothing,” Nutter said, referring to legislators who decided not to return to Harrisburg for a special voting session. “That’s what’s happened here. They are doing nothing and the school children of Philadelphia will suffer again — not only from a lack of general funding — and the schools will not open on time.  It’s is an absolute outrage and disgrace.”

But Erik Arneson, spokesman for the Republican Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, said Philadelphia schools can still get the money they need to open on time if Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration advances the needed money.

The move is not without precedent.

“Last year Gov. Corbett advanced the school district of Philadelphia some of their basic education funding money earlier in the year than they would have otherwise received it,” Arneson said. “That is an option.”

The actual bill containing the cigarette tax authorization was loaded up with piggybacking legislative language for other, unrelated items. With each new provision, the measure gained some supporters and lost others.

Despite that, Arneson said, a cigarette tax authorization can pass this fall.

“There’s no guarantee but I would be very confident that a resolution will be reached early in session when we return,” he said.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Harrisburg Sept. 15.

The governor’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.

WHYY’s Tom MacDonald contributed to this report.


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