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Pa. Legislature Passes Cigarette Tax to Fund Philadelphia's Schools

Philadelphia School District supporters are breathing a little easier today after the state legislature voted on Tuesday to approve a long-hoped-for cigarette tax bill, which will generate about $83 million annually to fund the cash-strapped school system, and Gov. Tom Corbett committed to signing the measure as soon as it hits his desk.

The passage of the $2-a-pack cigarette levy in Harrisburg brings to a close months-long haggling among district officials, parents, local politicians, and state legislators as they wrestled for sustainable alternatives to funding the state's largest school district outside of the frantic year-to-year pleadings in which the district had been engaged the last couple of years. 

Bill Green, the chairman of the School Reform Commission, which runs the school district, and Superintendent William R. Hite released a joint statement Tuesday afternoon after the bill's passage.

"We are extremely pleased and relieved that the cigarette tax legislation has been passed by the Senate and the House and it is awaiting the Governor's signature," they said. "Legislative leaders in both chambers and both sides of the aisle in Harrisburg acted on their promise to quickly consider and vote on this important legislation when the General Assembly reconvened this month."

"We are thankful to all who spoke up for this important legislation, including the many students, teachers, principals, and citizens," they continued, naming Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who proposed the original legislation; the Philadelphia state legislative delegation; Mayor Michael A. Nutter; and Council President Darrell L. Clarke.

The Associated Press reported that Corbett—facing a tough reelection in which education is a key concern among voters—has pledged to append his signature as soon as he gets the measure.

"I intend to sign the (bill) into law as soon as it reaches my desk so that the Philadelphia School District has the ability to ensure students have access to a safe and secure learning environment for the remainder of the school year," Corbett told the Associated Press.

The sales tax will generate an estimated $49 million in the first year—an amount the district has already included in its budget, Hite said.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Democrat from Philadelphia, acknowledged that Philadelphia's schools needed additional financial assistance beyond the cigarette tax levy.

"We should be very clear that this new stream of local funding does not scratch the surface of what the School District of Philadelphia truly needs to offer real opportunities to all of our students," Hughes told the AP.

Superintendent Hite has long decried the structural inadequacy of the district's finances and lamented that the annual uncertainty gets in the way of paying for and sustaining school improvement programs. This year's $2.49 billion budget came with a $216 million deficit.

In the last two years, the district has shed hundreds of jobs, and this year it put off planned academic enrichment programs.

This year, the district presented another doomsday budget that was scaled back gradually after the City Council passed legislation to extend the extra 1 percent sales tax, which is expected to generate at least $120 million annually for the schools, and to borrow about $57 million on the schools' behalf. Gov. Corbett also committed to advancing $265 million.

There was also a question of whether schools would open on time when it became clear that the legislature would not vote on the cigarette tax bill before the Sept. 8 opening of school. After deliberating, Hite decided to open schools as planned, but to make cuts to transportation, cleaning, professional development, and in the administrative departments. At the time, Hite said he intended to revisit the cuts in October.

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