- Associated Press - Sunday, June 29, 2014

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 giving the city the authority to raise sales taxes on cigarettes by $2 per-pack 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 tried to advance an approximately $29 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that starts Tuesday.

However, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who was in the Capitol, warned that the city’s school district cannot open its 202 schools in the fall to nearly 200,000 children without the more than $80 million that a cigarette tax increase would bring.

“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.”

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.”

Democratic Party lawmakers reacted angrily, turning their ire on Corbett who they say had reneged on his commitment to allow Philadelphia to increase its cigarette taxes to support its schools. They noted that his appointees run the city’s de facto school board.

“He should be ashamed of himself,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia.

Asked whether he was encouraging Philadelphia lawmakers to support the pension legislation, Nutter said, “I’m 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 city’s schools cannot fill a $96 million deficit, another 1,300 teachers would be laid off and class sizes would balloon to 40.

“We can’t guarantee their safety,” Hite said.

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