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Pa. House authorizes Philly to tax cigarettes for school funding

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

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Updated | July 3, 12:30 p.m.

Legislation that would enable Philadelphia to levy a $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by a 119-80 vote Wednesday night.

The vote came after a whirlwind of political deal-making and maneuvering by ideologically entrenched interests on both sides of the aisle.

Having escaped the House Rules Committee by unanimous consent, the cigarette tax bill faced a vote before the full House.

There it passed with the approval of 74 Democrats and 45 Republicans.

The Philadelphia School District had been waiting for the state to authorize a city cigarette tax in order to help close a $93 million budget gap.

With this enabling legislation, city officials expect the cigarette tax to generate $40 million to $45 million in its first year and nearly double that in years to come.

In Harrisburg, the measure pitted top Republicans who control the House against the mostly Democratic delegation representing Philadelphia. House Republicans had said that they would only allow a vote on the matter if the Philly delegation compromised on key Republican issues.

Before Wednesday evening’s committee vote, the pension reform legislation favored by Gov. Corbett was resurrected out of an unsupportive committee after being sent there Tuesday in large part due to Rep. Eugene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks. (DiGirolamo said House GOP leaders plan to postpone a vote on the public pension legislation until the fall, according to the Associated Press.)

A last-minute amendment was also added to the cigarette tax legislation (House Bill 1177) that allows organizations hoping to open new charter schools in Philadelphia to make appeals to a state board if denied by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. These matters have been the sole purview of the SRC.

Some onlookers criticized this addition, saying that it will undercut the School District’s ability to manage charter growth and thus cause already costly charter payments to grow exponentially.

"It was clearly a concern for the delegation," said State Rep. Cherelle Parker, D-Philadelphia, "but in weighing the immediate problem in front of us, we decided to get the recurring funding for the School District. Was it an easy decision? No, but we think we made the right decision."

Parker, who is the chair of the Philadelphia delegation, said she was "extremely pleased that Republican leadership and the governor worked with us on this," adding that it was "very much a regional vote" that "showed the unity of the five-county Philadelphia area."

All members of the Philadelphia delegation voted for the measure. Parker said Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, did a "yeoman’s job" helping to organize votes.

Some in the delegation at first resisted the cigarette tax, Parker said, arguing that the state should provide other funding sources to properly fund schools.

Philadelphia teachers’ union president Jerry Jordan called the passage "a huge victory."

Helen Gym, leader of Parents United for Public Education, praised the measure as a "unified victory for Philadelphia schools" but said, "we have serious concerns about last-minute amendments which may have been inserted into HB 1177, the language of which have never been reviewed by the public."

The School District did not reply to a request for comment.

The state budget approved by both the House and Senate included an additional $12 million for the District in a Ready to Learn block grant. Assuming both the budget and the cigarette tax achieve final passage, as expected, the District’s gap will be reduced to less than $40 million. The exact figure would depend on how much is actually collected from the cigarette tax.

Regional rift becomes more pronounced

On the cigarette tax issue, House Republicans haven’t fit into a single box.

Broadly speaking, the House leadership has been willing to allow a vote on the cigarette tax if they could get something they’ve wanted in exchange.

Far-right Republicans who have taken a "no-tax pledge" have been unmoved by the School District’s pleas. Suburban Philadelphia Republicans have been more supportive, with some saying that if the city wants to tax itself for the sake of its schools, that would be fine.

Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York, majority whip in the House, falls into the former category.

"Members of the House simply want Philadelphia to come forward and help solve some of the problems of the commonwealth, instead of sitting there thinking that Philadelphia gets to have a pass and everybody else will put up the votes to help Philly," he said.

So what are those issues? Saylor said it’s more than just bringing state pension costs down and privatizing liquor sales.

"It’s not just about pensions," he said. "That’s an issue that’s currently there. Philadelphia never puts up the votes to help any other parts of the state. Never. And that’s the key word. Never. You cannot continue to ask Republicans, Democrats, people from different parts of the state to solve your problems if you’re not willing to work as a team to solve the problems in other parts of the state."

Saylor said that if the delegation doesn’t compromise, then the city should get money for schools by raising city property taxes.

"You don’t want to raise your property taxes, fine," he said. "But we want solutions to our problems as well."

‘A dumb idea’

Rep. Ron Miller, R-York, repeated a theme heard among many in the Republican caucus.

"A Philadelphia cigarette tax, a $2-per-pack increase, is a dumb idea," he said. "I think it just leads to black markets and people buying cigarettes outside of Philadelphia County, but if it’s what they really want, I can support it."

Miller said he’d pledge his support only if he gets the signal from leadership that the Philly delegation is appropriately compromising.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai’s spokesman, Stephen Miskin, says that signal has not yet come.

"We need to work together not just on Philadelphia’s needs, but Pennsylvania’s needs," said Miskin. "As long as they continue to be a solid and consistent ‘no’ on every single issue, we’ll see where things are."

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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