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Philadelphia cigarette tax bill, which would help fund schools, hung up by House, Senate fight

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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Philadelphia's superintendent of schools is urging Republican state lawmakers to resolve a fight that has hung up an increase in the city's sales tax on cigarettes that he says is crucial to ensuring the city's schools can open in the fall.

The Tuesday night statement by Superintendent William Hite followed Senate changes to a wider municipal-tax policy bill. Several Senate additions are meeting resistance from House GOP leaders, leaving the bill in limbo without the necessary House approval to send it to Gov. Tom Corbett.

"With schools scheduled to open in less than two months, it is crucial that we secure the needed funding to support our students and schools," Hite said.

House GOP leaders on Wednesday scheduled the next voting session for Aug. 4. Philadelphia's 202 schools are scheduled to open Sept. 8. As Pennsylvania's largest school district, it serves nearly 200,000 traditional and charter school students.

The bill would let Philadelphia impose a $2-per-pack cigarette sales tax to raise money for its cash-strapped schools. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has warned that city schools will not open in the fall without the $80-plus million per year from the new cigarette tax. That money will help fill a $93 million deficit in a $2.6 billion budget that keeps district funding level.

Corbett has said he would sign the cigarette tax increase for Philadelphia, and the measure is no longer controversial in a Republican-controlled Legislature that can be hostile to the heavily Democratic city of Philadelphia.

But several other unrelated provisions in the wider-ranging bill remain controversial.

Provisions inserted by the Senate — to authorize three local hotel-room taxes and another to expand an economic development program targeted for small cities — have already been rejected once by the House.

A House Republican spokesman reiterated Wednesday that the provisions will be very difficult to pass because of the potential $70 million cost to the state and that House GOP leaders would need the time before Aug. 4 to figure out how to respond to the Senate's changes.

Every week that goes by without its approval diminishes the immediate financial value of the cigarette tax to Philadelphia's schools. Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, said the delay costs $1.6 million per week.

Meanwhile, Hite criticized a Senate amendment that would end the Philadelphia cigarette tax increase after five years.

"Ending the tax in five years will exacerbate our structural deficit, complicate our long-term planning efforts, make it harder to access the capital markets and strip our schools of educational services and supports," Hite said.

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