Many twists in cigarette bill has legislation stalled
HARRISBURG - State lawmakers have found themselves in a familiar spot this summer trying to resolve differences over an important bill with many moving parts.
The bill's main focus is to allow Philadelphia to levy a $2-per-pack cigarette tax to help pay for public schools. Philadelphia officials have said schools won't be able to open safely on time for 2014-15 if the bill isn't passed soon.
Yet also attached to this bill are economic-development provisions affecting other parts of the state. These provisions would accelerate expansion of a new urban redevelopment program known as City Revitalization and Improvement Zones (CRIZ) and authorize increases of the hotel room tax in Schuylkill and some other counties. Schuylkill County could increase its current 3 percent hotel tax to 5 percent.
The new revenue would be used for tourism promotion and other purposes.
Accelerating the CRIZ program would give Wilkes-Barre and other eligible cities more opportunity to be selected for a zone by state officials. When the program was created in 2013, participation was limited to eight third-class cities that met certain population thresholds.
Cities can use state taxes and some local taxes to underwrite their own bonds to finance development projects in the zones.
The bill authorizes some new types of zones. But the proposed expansion remains a sore spot for Sen. John Blake, D-22, Archbald, because Scranton continues to be excluded from even being able to apply for a zone.
The cigarette tax, CRIZ and hotel tax provisions became entangled because they were not resolved when the state budget was adopted. The Senate voted last month to insert the CRIZ and hotel tax provisions into the cigarette tax bill.
House Republican leaders scrapped plans to vote on the bill this week, saying they don't have a consensus on the CRIZ and hotel tax provisions.
The issues have not been properly vetted in the House to get just an up-or-down vote, said Speaker Sam Smith, R-66, Punxsutawney.
He urged Gov. Tom Corbett to advance money to tide the Philadelphia schools over until the House returns in mid-September.
The matter of authorizing a tax hike for Philadelphia is a problem for some conservative Republican lawmakers from rural areas, while friction exists between the Senate and House over the CRIZ zone expansion.
Senate Republican leaders want the expansion. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-28, Pittsburgh; has said Pennsylvania can't afford to commit up to potentially $80 million in state tax revenue for such an expansion given the troubled state finances.
A new twist was added when another House GOP leader, Majority Whip Stan Saylor, R-94, Red Lion, and Rep. Seth Grove, R-196, York, said they would vote against any move to remove the CRIZ and hotel tax provisions from the bill.
Both are important tools to help York County create jobs, they said.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. firstname.lastname@example.org.)