Pennsylvania Legislature Considers Cigarette Tax to Prop up Philadelphia Schools

by | September 16, 2014 AT 2:50 PM

By Amy Worden and Angela Couloumbis

It's do-or-die for a new cigarette tax to help Philadelphia schools, as well as scores of other bills, when the state legislature returns from its summer break Monday.

The fall legislative agenda is packed with bills touching on everything from public employee pensions to public records. Not only will it play out against the backdrop of a contentious election season, but it will also contend with a time crunch: Any bills that don't get approved this year will effectively die and have to be reintroduced come January, when a new two-year session begins.

Topping the agenda in both chambers is legislation authorizing Philadelphia to enact a $2-a-pack cigarette tax to help plug the School District's budget gap. The matter was left unresolved and in the House's hands when the General Assembly recessed in July.

For the Philadelphia School District, the cigarette tax is critical. And time is of the essence.

The system faces an $81 million deficit, and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said if the tax does not pass by early October, he will be forced to lay off more than 1,000 employees, including teachers, and swell some class sizes to 40.

"There is no Plan B," Hite said last week. "We're not going to put children in those types of environment."

Steve Miskin, spokesman for Republican leaders in the House, said he expects the chamber to vote on the cigarette tax by Wednesday. It will then go to the Senate, where officials say it ranks high on the list of priorities.

"Both chambers are interested in finishing it as soon as possible. Nobody wants that bill to linger," said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware).

Gov. Corbett has said he will sign the cigarette tax bill if it reaches his desk.

Beyond that, there is no agreement yet between the House and Senate on other weighty issues, such as reining in the state's skyrocketing public employee pensions and privatizing the sale of wine and liquor.

All 203 members of the House and half of the 50 senators are up for reelection. There is little confidence that such hotly debated bills will even be taken up, let alone make it to Corbett's desk, particularly given the abbreviated legislative schedule. The House is set to meet for 11 days before members break in late October for the election, and the Senate for 10 days.

Legislative sources say there is only the slimmest chance of resolutions on liquor or pensions bills -- though House Republicans are determined to jump-start debate on both issues.

Still, even Corbett appears to be conceding that the pension issue will not get resolved quickly, saying last week that he would call a special session on pension reform if he is reelected.

"The governor still believes pension reform remains one of the major issues he and the legislature must deal with, and is hopeful that progress can be made," Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni said.

The prospects appear better for debate on a medical marijuana bill -- at least in the Senate -- although Corbett has remained steadfast in his opposition to blanket legalization of marijuana for medicinal uses. He did say last spring that he would support a pilot study among child epilepsy patients seeking relief from seizures.

With two-thirds of the Senate supporting it, both Republican leaders and Democrats in that chamber say they are confident that a bill legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes under a doctor's supervision will be approved by the upper chamber.

Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) said he believes that the House too has the votes to pass the bill -- and that there is urgency to getting the bill done quickly.

"Every day we don't have access to medicine for people who desperately need it is a bad day," said Leach, who said he hopes the issue makes it to Corbett's desk in the next few weeks.

Not so fast, countered Miskin, noting that the federal Food and Drug Administration has not approved marijuana for medical use.

"The majority of our members believe the FDA has the resources to determine what is and what isn't medicine," said Miskin.

Another bill that could move in the Senate would expand the open-records law to include records from state-related universities such as Pennsylvania State University. The bill would also limit requests from inmates, who account for 40 percent of all open records requests.

Yet another measure under consideration would remove a little-known provision in state law that protects parties in labor disputes from prosecution for stalking and harassment. That bill is sponsored by Rep. Ron Miller (R., York).

Both chambers have passed slightly different versions of that bill, with the latest incarnation of the bill now back in the House.

Less certain is the fate of a measure that would prohibit lawmakers and other elected officials from accepting cash gifts and other monetary items, such as gift cards and money orders, from lobbyists and others with an interest in state government.

The bill followed stories in The Inquirer about an aborted sting investigation by state prosecutors that had caught five elected officials, including four Philadelphia Democratic legislators, accepting cash, money orders, or gifts from an undercover operative.

The Senate unanimously passed the cash gift ban bill in the spring, but the measure has not moved in the House.

Miskin noted that the House adopted an ethics rule banning legislators and their employees from accepting cash gifts, but said the chamber is unlikely to take further action until other active investigations into the sting case are complete.

Inquirer staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.

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