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House approval of cigarette tax hailed as victory by officials and funding advocates

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

After a seesaw week of negotiations in Harrisburg, House legislators late Wednesday night passed, 119-80, an amended bill that allows Philadelphia to add a $2 per-pack tax on cigarettes to help fund the city’s schools. The entire Philadelphia delegation supported the bill.

If approved by the Senate and Gov. Corbett, who have both supported the tax, the School District stands to gain as much as $45 million in the first year and about $80 million the year after, according to estimates. The tax should narrow the District’s substantial 2014-15 budget gap to less than $40 million. Its approval was hailed as a victory by both elected officials and advocates for more school funding.

State Sen. Anthony Williams, who first proposed the cigarette tax last year, said he was "delighted that the next hurdle in this process has been cleared," but tempered his joy with caution.

“This has been a gut-wrenching up-and-down week for families who have children in Philly schools, but we still have road to travel before students and parents can feel secure about this important new revenue stream.

Corbett urged the Senate’s concurrence on the bill, but also alluded to the ongoing contract negotiations with Philadelphia’s teachers’ union, from which he has sought concessions.

"I commend the House of Representatives on the passage of HB 1177. This action will provide much-needed fiscal relief for the Philadelphia School District. We will continue to work with all the parties, including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, to address the ongoing financial struggles of the district.

We have worked for over a year, above the partisan politics, to put the students of Philadelphia first. I urge the Senate to concur on this much-needed relief for Philadelphia’s schools."

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, thanked the Philly delegation and addressed how the infusion of recurring cash could aid the School District.

"The passage of the cigarette tax by the PA House of Representatives is a huge victory for our public schools. The projected $40 million in revenue it is expected to generate will enable schools to open on time this September. The tax will bring about $80 million to schools in the 2015-16 school year, which would put us on a path to restoring some of the drastic cuts to programs and services for schoolchildren."

Parents United for Public Education called it "a unified victory for Philadelphia schools," but also raised concerns and other recommendations for getting schools more money.

While we acknowledge this work, we have serious concerns about amendments which may have been inserted into HB 1177, the language of which has never been reviewed by the public. Despite the passage of HB 1177, Pennsylvania’s children were still shortchanged in the FY 15 budget. The state failed to enact a fair funding formula, and school districts across the state will be forced to raise taxes to make up for Pennsylvania’s refusal to fund schools responsibly. Philadelphia is no exception. Even with the funds raised by the cigarette tax, the School District of Philadelphia is still $45 million short of last year’s inadequate status quo. This is unacceptable.

We call upon the Mayor and City Council to formally reconvene this summer to address this gap and to restore essential staff, primarily guidance counselors, nurses, and teachers. We will not endure another year like last year.

City Council President Darrell Clarke emphasized the bill’s approval as moving one step closer to truly adequate funding for schools.

“I sincerely hope Governor Corbett keeps his word and signs this legislation into law. I will continue to work with my colleagues in City Council and in the General Assembly toward truly adequate funding for all public schools in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Let us endeavor to not just keep our schools afloat, but to enhance learning environments for our students. We should not settle for merely stopping a decline in our schools.”

Superintendent William Hite, in a statement issued late Thursday afternoon, said District leaders were "extremely pleased and relieved that the School District-supporting cigarette tax legislation is on its way to becoming a reality." Citing the remaining budget gap, though, he warned of imminent cost-cutting actions.

“Filling the $93 million shortfall will only maintain the School District’s inadequate resources. In the next few weeks, the School District will work on closing the remaining shortfall, an effort that may require a number of difficult actions. The District will continue to focus on the millions in savings that can be garnered from the ongoing labor negotiations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. In approximately eight weeks, teachers will be back in schools, preparing to nurture and educate the children of Philadelphia. It is crucial that we move quickly to secure the funds necessary to support our students and schools.”

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