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Iffy Tax Measure: Philly Smokers Now Funding Public Schools

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On Wednesday, Pennsylvania senators passed a bill that will allocate revenue from cigarette taxes to the funding of public schools.

The measure adds $2 to an existing $1.60 tax, in an effort to close the $81 million gap in the annual budget for the Philadelphia school district. Projections on the benefits of the tax vary, with lawmakers estimating that it will generate somewhere between $50 and $90 million in additional funding.

The bill passed by a wide margin, gaining the support of 39 in 50 state senators.

This followed a previous cancellation of the vote in early August. At that time, according to Philadelphia Magazine, speculation was raised as to the likelihood of the bill's passage, as House Republicans became reluctant to support it.

Sen. Seth Grove, the Republican from York, was quoted early on as saying that the tax "leaves a bad taste in [his] mouth."

Grove was referring to the bill's focus on the Philadelphia School District to the disadvantage of the state's remaining districts, and he elaborated that he wished to "advocate for a more comprehensive approach."

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Controversy

Sen. Grove's have not been the only objections to the law, which has been languishing in the House for nearly four months.

According to Watchdog.org, the new tax provides only a partial and temporary solution to the state's education funding dilemma.

The legislation analysis outlet cites Moody's Investor's Service, a credit rating agency, which states that the tax "will not come close to solving the district's fiscal problems."

Moody's goes on to explain that “the district will continue to struggle financially and academically and will likely beseech the city and state government for increased funding each year, although it is unlikely to get everything it asks for.”

Indeed, the school district has previously been moved to repeatedly request additional funding from the government, a trend which this tax does not promise to reverse.

These periodic surges in funding have occurred in conjunction with significant cuts in school staffing and benefits.

This time, the effects of the temporary fix are expected to dwindle as Philadelphia smokers quit or purchase their cigarettes outside the city, where the tax does not apply.

These projections stand in contrast to assurances by Gov. Tom Corbett, who announced in August that the cigarette tax, then still on the table, would provide "longer-term funding" for Philadephia schools. This announcement was made after the governor had approved a $265 million budget in the district for the upcoming school year.

The measure also ostensibly raises moral questions regarding the local government's decision to utilize funds gained from smoking to support the city's public schools. Thus far lawmakers have not commented on this association.

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The massive budget deficit threatened to delay the commencement of the 2014-2015 school year. Superintendent William Hite announced only in mid-August that school would begin on schedule.

Budget cuts already implemented in the effort to remedy the deficit have included transportation, police, maintenance, purchases from vendors and numerous other reductions.

Cindy Farlino, principal of the William M. Meredith Elementary School, told the New York Times in regard to the budget situation: “Things are still dire in the schools. We limped along last year trying to make it work, and it looks like this year will be more of the same.”

The increased cigarette tax went into immediate effect this week.

By Bessam Idani

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