Philadelphia Schools’ Start, Layoffs Hinge on Cigarette Tax

Pennsylvania legislative leaders recently met with Governor Tom Corbett to discuss Philadelphia's school funding crisis, with no consensus reached.

On the list for discussion is a bill that would allow Philadelphia to place a city-only cigarette tax of $2 in place in order to raise more than $80 million for city schools.

If the bill does not go through, school officials have threatened to layoff as many as 1,300 employees by August 15, and schools will not open on September 8 as they are scheduled to.

According to House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin, the tax has been passed in both the state House and Senate in the past.

"There's a will to get it done," he said Monday. "The votes were there for the cigarette tax enabling legislation. And we've just got to try to get there again."

Miskin stated several roadblocks are in the way to getting the bill through. Legislators are also trying to raise hotel taxes, as well as finding a way to use tax revenues for commercial real estate projects.

Spokesmen for the legislative leaders have made it clear that once these issues have been worked out, the cigarette bill will make it through. School officials say their word on it is simply not enough.

The district was able to move forward last year with a $50 million budget because it had it in writing from the mayor that it would have the money.

"We have moved forward when we have an official guarantee," district spokesman Fernando Gallard said. "At this point, we haven't heard of or seen an official guarantee on the cigarette tax."

In a push to get the bill through faster, the Governor is urging the focus to be on the cigarette tax, placing the other issues on the back burner for another time.

Until an answer for the bill comes in, the Corbett administration is trying to get the state aid that is due to the district to help them out.

"This is about putting children of Philadelphia first," spokesman Jay Pagni told the newspaper. "The governor is prepared, if need be, to advance funding once the final request is made of him."

However, officials for Philadelphia are calling this a "temporary fix".

"The problem with this is, it's not new money," said Mayor Michael Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald. "What the School District needs is new additional funds."

They are also busy working on a way to make the cigarette tax operational within as few as 10 days, instead of the 30 days that the bill calls for.

With the tax expected to bring in as much as $90,000 a day, every day counts.

"We want to make sure the District doesn't lose out and put it into effect as quickly as possible," State Budget Secretary Charles Zogby said. "The governor has got his team working to do everything we can, short of the law actually being signed, to make sure it is ready to go."

A final decision on the tax must be made by August 15.

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