‘Vortex of political hell’ captures Philly’s cigarette tax bill

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter gets credit for calling it like he sees it.

An obviously frustrated Nutter told reporters last week he was tired of watching the legislative ping-pong over a bill that would increase taxes on cigarettes in Philadelphia to fund schools.

JUST A BILL: The cigarette tax for Philadelphia schools is tied up with several other controversial proposals inside the same piece of legislation. It’s creating quite a mess in Harrisburg.

“We’re caught in a vortex of political hell,” Nutter said, according to multiple news outlets.

Hyperbole? Maybe not as much as you’d think.

Officials for the Philadelphia School District say they will have to increase class sizes and consider layoffs unless they get an extra $85 million. The school district and city government have lobbied for the right to add a $2 per-pack surcharge on cigarettes, but they must first get approval from the state government.

That’s been easier said than done.

For now, all eyes are on HB 1177.

That bill — which began life as a simple attempt at “clarifying language relating to the formation of a Gov’t Study Referendum and Commission on consolidation/merger of municipalities” — has been loaded up with amendments increasing hotel taxes in two counties, detailing changes to the procedure for establishing a charter school within a school district and granting the Allegheny County Airport Authority the right to invest some of its annual revenue in commercial paper products.

The original language talks about studying the possibility of consolidating and merging municipalities, and then there’s the $2 per-pack cigarette tax in Philadelphia.

So, yes, the bill demonstrates pretty clearly how Harrisburg can become a “vortex of political hell.”

Every time a single element of this multi-faceted legislation is changed — even if the change is just taking out a few words here and there — the new version has to be passed by both chambers of the General Assembly.

The underlying bill already made its way through the House and was ready for a final vote in the state Senate on June 27, when the hotel taxes were added. The Senate added the cigarette tax June 30, kicking it back to the state House.

On July 2, the state House added the charter school language — thus requiring the whole bill to again return to the Senate.

The state Senate decided to keep playing games, voting July 8 to add 24 new pages to the bill detailing a tax abatement program for Pennsylvania’s financially struggling cities. The changed bill was approved and sent back to the state House, which had already left for its summer recess.

Now, the state House will “most likely” consider the bill when it returns to session on Aug. 4, according to Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.

It’s not exactly the School House Rock version of how legislation gets written and passed. But in Harrisburg it’s how things get done – eventually.

Boehm can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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