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Plan to fund Philly schools shifts as budget battle nears deadline

Legislation enabling the city to tax cigarettes to fund the School District of Philadelphia stalled, but another package of measures is now on the table.

Gov. Tom Corbett Gov. Tom Corbett. (Credit: Rikard Larma / Metro).

The Pennsylvania Senate on Sunday voted 33-17 to approve a $28.4 billion budget, which was Sunday evening being debated in the state House of Representatives.

With just hours to go before the end of the fiscal year, Harrisburg's plan to fund the embattled School District of Philadelphia appeared to have shifted radically, with just $14 million in additional dollars allocated for basic education in the city, per the budget passed by the Senate.

The School District is facing a $304 million deficit in the next fiscal year, which has led to mass layoff notices and the planned elimination of all extracurricular and support programs.

Though a bill enabling Philadelphia to levy a $2-per-pack cigarette tax to raise revenue for the schools stalled Sunday, legislation advanced allowing the city to strengthen its tax collections and to make permanent a temporary one percent sales tax, diverting some of the revenue to schools, which could together garner up to $130 million annually.

Legislators also pledged $45 million in state monies slated to repay a recently forgiven federal debt, but suggested some funds may only be made available if city schools adhere to certain performance and management criteria.

Though there was plenty of mutual back-slapping from state Senators regarding the austerity of the greenlit budget – state Sen. Jake Corman (R–Centre) compared the government's fiscal restraint with cutbacks made by those in the private sector – others pointed out Pennsylvanians are the ones who will feel the brunt of the budgetary priorities, not lawmakers.

"The money – just so everyone's clear – it doesn't go to us," state Sen. Daylin Leach (D–Montgomery) said.

"We're not spending this money on beer and knockwurst or whatever it is for legislators. ... When we say, 'We're doing more with less,' what it really means is poor kids are doing with less, people who are sick are doing with less, people who are handicapped and elderly are doing with less, or people who have a road in front of their house that hasn't been fixed and can't get to work – they're doing with less."

The fates of two central components of this year's state budget – a $2 billion transportation funding package and a liquor privatization overhaul pushed by Gov. Tom Corbett – remained up in the air Sunday evening.

Corbett continued to press lawmakers to pass the liquor privatization measure Sunday.

"I urge the members of the Senate to pass House Bill 790 as amended and send it to the House for concurrence today," Corbett said in a statement.

"I am asking the House to then immediately take action and concur on the bill as is and get it to my desk. I will proudly sign this bill into law. This bill as amended is a historic step and we must not lose this opportunity to deliver a reform the people of Pennsylvania want and deserve."

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