The Pennsylvania Legislature returns to session next week. While the main attractions will be liquor privatization, transportation funding and other statewide concerns, some folks around here are looking to Harrisburg to resolve a standoff in Philadelphia City Hall.
Mayor Michael Nutter wants City Council to pass a bill to implement legislation enacted by state lawmakers last spring making an increase in Philadelphia’s sales tax permanent and putting most of the money into the schools. That wasn’t Nutter’s plan. He wanted cigarette and liquor taxes, but that’s what the Legislature did.
City Council president Darrell Clarke is balking at Nutter’s request. He says it was bad deal from the state, and he wants to press the Legislature for the cigarette tax it turned down before, and a new bill providing for an even-steven split in sales tax revenue between the schools and the city’s ailing pension fund.
But here’s an important empirical question: Will the Legislature be willing to revisit the Philadelphia tax issues at all?
“I don’t see it happening this fall,” said Steve Miskin, spokesman for the Republican state House leadership.
While Philadelphians may think it’s no big deal to ask lawmakers to let Philadelphia to tax its own citizens, Republicans in Harrisburg see it differently. Any tax vote is a tough vote.
“It’s not the time to raise taxes,” Miskin said. “We’re still recovering from the worst recession of our lifetimes, and people are struggling to get back on their feet. It’s just not the time to raise taxes.”
Many have pointed out that anti-tax hawk Grover Norquist wrote a letter specifically warning lawmakers that a vote for the cigarette tax would violate the no-tax pledge many of them had taken. Miskin says lawmakers don’t need Norquist to tell them tax hikes are a bad idea.
Senate leader noncommittal
The majority leader of the state Senate, Delaware County Republican Dominic Pileggi, wouldn’t rule out getting some changes in the taxes affecting Philadelphia. He said the Legislature has a lot on its plate, including issues of statewide significance.
“I think there is capacity both in the House and Senate to also deal with issues that impact the largest school district in the state,” Pileggi said in a phone interview. “But the case would have to be made that there is a reason to revisit these issues literally months after we last left them.”
Nutter’s chief education officer, Lori Shorr, said the administration supports the tax changes the Council president wants, along with a new statewide school funding formula, and will ask the Legislature to consider them.
But she said lawmakers won’t like it if Council ignores the sales tax authorization the Legislature has already granted.
“I think we have no chance of getting something up there if we don’t pass the sales tax down here,” she said.
I asked state Sen. Vincent Hughes, Democratic chair of the appropriation committee, what he thinks. He said the Republican governor and Legislature have to take responsibility for the damage their education cuts have inflicted, that they shouldn’t blame the teachers union. He added that the mayor and Council president will work things out.
But when I asked specifically if he agreed with Shorr that the city would have to pass the sales tax legislation before asking for anything new, he said her view “may be a very sound perspective, and a very sound way to look at this.”
Nutter wants Council to pass the sales tax bill now so the city can borrow $50 million the schools need based on those revenues.
Interviewed before Thursday’s City Council session, Clark noted that the legislation extending the sales tax wouldn’t take effect until July of next year.
“So from my perspective, and I think a host of other Council members, the sense of urgency to introduce that just is just not there at this time,” he said.
As I said, we have a standoff at City Hall.
Tom MacDonald contributed to this story.