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Cigarette tax for Philly schools stalls in Capitol

| Thursday, July 31, 2014, 9:27 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Funding to ensure that Philadelphia city leaders will allow the city's schools to open on time in September was thrown deeper into doubt on Thursday when Republican House majority leaders canceled a planned voting session next week amid intra-GOP fights.

The move drew a sharp response from Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who said the city's schools will not open as scheduled on Sept. 8 because House Republicans “will not come back and do their job for one day.”

The GOP-controlled House had been expected to return to Harrisburg on Monday to act on a bill that would authorize Philadelphia to raise money from a new cigarette sales tax for its deficit-plagued school district.

The cancellation of the three-day House session was announced by Speaker Sam Smith and Majority Leader Mike Turzai, who said leaders tried but failed to forge a consensus — apparently postponing any action until after the scheduled Sept. 8 opening of city schools.

Instead, the top House leaders urged Gov. Tom Corbett, a fellow Republican, to advance the state's largest school district the money it needs to run its schools in the short term. The district serves about 200,000 traditional and charter-school students.

“If such funding is not advanced, we fear that the education of thousands of Philadelphia school children will be in jeopardy,” Smith and Turzai wrote in a letter to the governor.

Corbett has said he would sign the cigarette tax legislation. On Thursday, Corbett press secretary Jay Pagni said the governor plans to meet with legislative leaders next week about various topics, including an advance on Philadelphia schools' state subsidy as a short-term solution.

“The only thing that can settle the long-term funding issues for the Philadelphia School district is to come back and pass the cigarette tax,” Pagni said.

The House is not scheduled to meet again until Sept. 15.

As Pennsylvania's largest school district, it serves nearly 200,000 traditional and charter school students.

Nutter and Philadelphia schools Superintendent William Hite have said the city's 202 schools cannot ensure student safety without the more than $80 million a year from the $2-a-pack cigarette tax, which would be earmarked exclusively for the school district.

Nutter said students, parents, businesses and teachers will suffer as a result.

“We're left in a situation where we're trying to maintain the inadequate schools we provided last year,” he told reporters at Philadelphia International Airport.

Earlier, Nutter and City Council President Darrell Clarke issued a joint statement calling the cancellation of next week's session “devastating.” They urged House leaders to reconsider and pass the bill by the Aug. 15.

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