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Tradeoff in the cigarette tax bill: Potential for more new charters, more appeals

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

Very probable, optimistic, off the table, never happening, dead, passed.

Such was a week in the life of the Philadelphia cigarette tax.

On Wednesday night, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved the measure by a 119-80 vote.

The Senate, which passed similar language earlier in the week, will likely vote on it Tuesday. If approved, it will head to Gov. Corbett’s desk.

The Philadelphia School District has been counting on the tax – $2 per pack on cigarettes sold within city limits – to help close its $93 million budget gap. The tax is expected to generate $40 million to $45 million in its first year and double that in years to come.

Even if the District completely closed that budget gap, it says that would only provide enough resources to maintain this past school year’s admittedly "insufficient" levels of staffing and programs. To implement his vision for District growth, Superintendent William Hite has asked for $224 million above this figure.

Philadelphia Mayor Nutter called the cigarette tax passage a "spectacular turnaround, possibly one of the greatest turnarounds in legislative recent history."

But other advocates worry that whatever new revenue the cigarette tax generates will get eaten into by costs flowing from a change in charter school regulation that was approved during the late-night horse-trading in the General Assembly.

Sausage-making

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle confirmed that many deals had to be made in order for the cigarette tax even to be brought for a vote.

"It was really Sam [Smith, R-Armstrong] and Mike [Turzai, R-Allegheny] who were dead-set against it," said Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia. "But as things moved forward, they realized the gravity of the situation."

Taylor said the tax was "dead" as late as Sunday night.

A few key compromises revived the measure, though, he said, giving Majority Leader Turzai the impetus to bring it for a vote.

Some House Democrats pledged support for changes to the state fiscal code that Turzai wanted.

And pension reform legislation pushed hard by Corbett was resurrected from the Human Services Committee chaired by Rep. Eugene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, who is not a fan of Corbett’s pension ideas. Had the pension package – which House Republicans insisted that some House Democrats support in return for the schools tax – stayed in DiGirolamo’s committee, he might have let it languish indefinitely.

"We needed to make sure that happened," said Taylor. "You can’t leave for the summer having the majority party having their ability to run their agenda thwarted."

The cigarette tax also wouldn’t have happened, Taylor said, without the overwhelming support of Republicans from the four counties surrounding Philadelphia, specifically Rep. William Adolph, R-Delaware.

"Bill Adolph was incredible. He really stuck his neck out with leadership," Taylor said.

The most contentious compromise, though, came on another matter critical to the future of education in Philadelphia.

Turzai linked the cigarette tax legislation to an old bill of Taylor’s, one that alters the appeals process for organizations hoping to create charter schools in Philadelphia.

The amendment allows applicants to petition the state charter appeals board (CAB) if they are rejected by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. As is, these matters are the sole purview of the SRC, which was exempted from the appeals process in the state-takeover legislation that formed the body in 2001.

The SRC last approved a batch of independent charter schools in 2009. Since then they’ve converted 21 traditional District schools into Renaissance charters.The District hasn’t invited applications for new charters since then. The House bill would require the District to invite applications annually, like other districts in the state.

Some onlookers worry the appeals change will undercut the School District’s ability to manage charter growth, and thus cause already costly charter payments to grow exponentially.

Taylor said that adding that element to the bill was crucial in corralling more Republican support.

"It was another reason that a member that wasn’t from Philly that would be subject to criticism for making a quote-unquote tax vote would [be able to] vote for it," he said.

"The charter language was purely and simply putting into Philadelphia what is in place in 499 other districts," said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for Turzai.

"It doesn’t say you automatically get it," he said. "It just gives you a chance to appeal, nothing more, nothing less. … In a sense it’s giving them due process that was otherwise denied."

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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