State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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In cigarette tax haze, an overlooked point about Philly's tax circumstances

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Aug 5, 2014 4:28 PM

Photo by Mary Wilson / witf

Ariella Mandell, 8, stands outside House leadership offices. She is a rising third grader at Penn Alexander School in Philadelphia.

As state lawmakers appear at a stalemate over a cigarette tax proposal for Philadelphia schools, advocates worry that tax-averse legislators have a fundamental misunderstanding of their city’s situation.

An “us-versus-them” mentality pervades any debate involving education funding for the Philadelphia school district. Many Republican lawmakers have balked at the notion of approving a tax authorization for Philadelphia when it doesn’t benefit their own districts.

Rep. Brian Ellis (R-Butler) said as much to The Philadelphia Inquirer:

"The reality is, we've continued to give more and more and more to Philadelphia schools than my school districts get here in Butler County," he said. "The legislative process by nature is a give-and-take process. And without that give-and-take process, there's no reason to go back to Harrisburg until September."

Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), one of the House lawmakers who pulled his support for the tax authorization last week, said he has a hard time voting for a bill that singles out Philadelphia school district without helping other parts of the state.

“They can raise property taxes. There’s nothing stopping them from raising property taxes,” Grove said. “This is about not raising property taxes in Philadelphia, while the rest of the state has raised property taxes.”

But Philadelphia is the only school district in the state with no taxing authority. Any tax increases are approved by the city council, and split between the city and the school district.

“That’s one of the reasons you see Philadelphia citizens out there begging from the legislature so often,” said Gretchen Cowell, a parent of two kids educated in Philadelphia city schools who attended a Monday rally in Harrisburg to urge lawmakers to pass the $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes to help bridge a multimillion dollar deficit.

Donna Cooper, head of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said over the past three years Philadelphia’s city council has increased taxes by more than $100 million to try to make up for lost state aid. This year, council was unwilling to approve another property tax increase, but it approved a new tax on cigarettes.

“We’re not asking for the legislature to give us a dime,” said Cooper. “We’re asking for ability to tax ourselves.”

Cost pressures have been particularly acute in Philadelphia, one of the state’s poorest school districts. State funding that helps offset the costs of charter schools was cut in 2011. Advocates say Philadelphia has more charters than most other school districts across the state.

Published in State House Sound Bites

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