House calls off session next week

House calls off session next week

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cancelledHouse GOP leaders announced they will not return to the Capitol next week to vote a bill enabling Philadelphia to increase its cigarette tax to help fund its schools.

House Speaker Sam Smith and Majority Leader Mike Turzai have asked Gov. Tom Corbett to advance funds to the School District of Philadelphia to ensure the schools open on time.

The House is scheduled to return September 15 when the Philadelphia schools would already be open for a full week. School officials said the schools would not be able to open safely without the ability to generate the revenue through the cigarette tax increase.

In a joint statement, House GOP leaders said they have failed to reach a consensus on other aspects of the legislation which deal with a hotel tax increase and a city redevelopment program. In a letter to Corbett, the leaders asked Corbett to advance education funding at a level “sufficient to allow the school district to open its doors and begin classes on time in September.”

“An early transfer of funds is critical to allow the school district to provide an education to Philadelphia’s school students. If such funding is not advanced, we fear that the education of thousands of Philadelphia schools children will be in jeopardy,” according to the letter. No dollar figure was given, but the letter notes the Corbett administration transferred $400 million in payments to the Philadelphia School District earlier than scheduled during the 2013-14 fiscal year.

“Such an advance of funds is not unprecedented,” the leaders wrote.

The Philly cigarette tax issue led to a few whirlwind days of politicking and legislating at the end of the 2013-14 fiscal year. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and other city and district officials for days lobbied for support of the enabling provision.
Philadelphia School District officials have said the district will begin sending layoff notices unless the Legislature passed the cigarette tax by August 15. The district was anticipating about $83 million from the $2 per pack increase on cigarettes sold in the city limits.

“As we have stated repeatedly over the last year, the Cigarette Tax is a critically important part of a multi-pronged solution to support the children of Philadelphia and our public schools for the next school year and for years to come. The news that the House will not return next week to pass HB 1177 is devastating to us,” according to a joint statement from Nutter and City Council President Darrell Clarke.

The statement continued: “Superintendent Dr. William Hite has been clear that without the new revenue from the Philadelphia Cigarette Tax to fill the now $81 million budget gap, he could not open schools on time. We support Dr. Hite’s belief that ensuring schools are safe and adequately staffed is more important than opening schools as planned on September 8th.”

The provisions holding up support for the House Bill 1177 are for hotel room tax increases to generate tourism dollars and the City Revitalization and Improvement Zone (CRIZ) expansions, which require more “in-depth policy discussion,” Smith said in a statement.

Miskin said earlier this week the two provisions would be stripped from the bill, which drew opposition from House GOP Whip Stan Saylor, R-York, and fellow Republican York Rep. Seth Grove, who said in a statement they would not vote for any amendment “which would be detrimental to the economic success of York County.”

The current form of HB1177 would authorize select counties and municipalities to increase a hotel room tax. The CRIZ program is used to develop vacant, blighted or abandoned properties for commercial use. The original program allowed chosen municipalities, primarily those of the third class with populations of at least 30,000, to establish a contracting authority to create a CRIZ area of up to 130 acres, comprised of parcels designated by the contracting authority. The chosen municipalities are permitted to issue bonds for construction and rehabilitation of the buildings and all new state taxes generated in the CRIZ areas are used to repay the bond debts. Bethlehem and Lancaster are currently the only CRIZ communities.

“As members of the House Rules Committee, we will not vote for any amendment which would be detrimental to the economic success of York County. The City Revitalization and Improvement Zone (CRIZ) and hotel tax for York County are important tools in creating jobs and increasing the economy of York County,” they said in a statement.

Smith and Turzai also said a vote on a public pension overhaul proposal is expected when lawmakers return in September.

— Kevin Zwick, Staff Reporter for Capitolwire