Pension bill tied to aid for Philadelphia schools
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Approval for a cigarette tax increase in Philadelphia was being held up in the Pennsylvania Legislature on Sunday by Republicans who were trying to scrape up enough support to pass legislation backed by Gov. Tom Corbett to reduce future public employee pension benefits.
House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, said Republicans were trying to persuade Philadelphia Democrats to support the pension bill in exchange for the cigarette tax increase to benefit the city's schools.
"We need a little help, and we'll help you," Smith told reporters during an unusual weekend session as Republicans try to advance an approximately $29 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that starts Tuesday.
Corbett has said he would not sign a budget bill unless pension legislation passes the Legislature controlled by his fellow Republicans. However, a pension bill that Corbett backs is lacking enough support from both the House and Senate Republican majorities, while Democrats have been united in their opposition.
Corbett has argued that Pennsylvania's public pension obligations are unaffordable and must be reduced.
"I would encourage the delegation, the Democrat delegation, from the city of Philadelphia ... to give the votes to get a pension bill done so they can get a cigarette tax done so they can get additional funding for the school district of Philadelphia," Corbett told reporters during a briefing in his Capitol offices. "It's in their hands."
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who was in the Capitol, said the city's school district cannot open its 202 schools to nearly 200,000 children without the more than $80 million that a $2 per-pack cigarette tax increase would bring in for schools.
"This is political horse-trading at its worst," Nutter told reporters. "It is a sad day in public service that we find children being held on the railroad tracks awaiting some rescue to come from somewhere that has nothing to do with them."
Asked whether Nutter was encouraging Philadelphia lawmakers to support the pension legislation, he said, "I asking members to do what needs to be done. ... I'm asking them for a vote of conscience to ensure that public schools open in Philadelphia on time and safely."
Superintendent William Hite said Sunday that, if the state-controlled city schools cannot fill a $96 million deficit, another 1,300 teachers would be laid off and class sizes would balloon to 40. In that scenario, Nutter said he cannot recommend to Hite that schools open in the fall.
"We can't guarantee their safety," Hite said.
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