Without cigarette tax, schools opening is not guaranteed, officials say

Mayor Michael Nutter and schools Superintendent Dr. William Hite spoke about the need for Harrisburg to approve a city cigarette tax to help fund Philadelphia schools, at a hearing of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Appropriations Committee at City Hall on Wednesday. Credit: Charles Mostoller/Metro
Mayor Michael Nutter and schools Superintendent Dr. William Hite spoke about the need for Harrisburg to approve a city cigarette tax to help fund Philadelphia schools, at a hearing of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Appropriations Committee at City Hall on Wednesday. Credit: Charles Mostoller/Metro

With a summer vote in Harrisburg on a new cigarette tax delayed until September, the state senate’s Democratic Appropriations Committee convened in City Hall Wednesday to address the impacts of the delay.

“Last year was a disgrace. … This year, without these dollars, will be a disaster,” said Mayor Michael Nutter, referring to the projected $83 million in revenue that a cigarette tax would guarantee.

Nutter pointed out that the city has come up with $325 million in new funding for schools — by extending a 1 percent sales tax, raising property taxes twice and increasing the use and occupancy tax.

Additionally, the Schools District of Philadelphia still laid off 5,000 employees (20 percent of its workforce), closed 31 schools in 2012 and reduced administrative costs to three percent, Nutter and Superintendent William Hite said.

“No other public institution can equal this level of sacrifice,” Nutter said.

He said that City Council unanimously approved the cigarette tax a year ago, the state Senate voted in favor of it twice and the House of Representatives approved it once before amendments to the bill led to this delay.

“The delay has potentially disastrous consequences,” Hite said, saying he is unsure if schools can even open this fall without cigarette tax revenues.

Appropriations Chair Vincent Hughes said the Philadelphia delegation to Harrisburg all support the Philadelphia-only, $2-a-pack cigarette tax.

But House of Representatives majority leader Mike Turzai and Speaker Samuel Smith have delayed a scheduled Aug. 4 vote on the tax to Sept. 15, saying further discussions were needed.

“The reality is we do need to pass a tax because we we do need the money but we also need you to understand that the passage of this tax or getting this done is not a badge of honor for you or for the governor, it will not be something to throw a parade for, because we should never have been here,” said Reverend Dr. Alyn E. Waller, pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church and a volunteer wrestling coach at Martin Luther King High School.

“At the end of the day, the larger issue is fair, student-based funding that will not have us repeatedly coming back to discuss ‘Where’s the money going to come from?’” Waller said.

Gov. Tom Corbett announced Wednesday that he will advance $225 million in funding to the Schools District, but Hite said at the hearing those funds were already in the budget and do not guarantee schools can open on time.

Hite will decide by Aug. 15 whether to open schools on Sept. 8.

By the numbers

$81 million

Needed to bring school budgets back to Sept. ’13 levels

$83 million

Projected annual cigarette tax revenue

$224 million

What SDP is asking for to grow

Source: School District of Philadelphia



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