By Mike Dunn
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Philadelphia City Council today gave a preliminary thumbs-up to Mayor Nutter’s plan for a $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes.
But whether the new tax ever gets final approval remains unclear.
Councilmembers, meeting at the committee level, approved six budget bills including the measure allowing for a $2 per pack cigarette tax within the city.
Mayor Nutter wants this in order to help funnel additional revenue to the school district (see related story).
After the vote, Council president Darrell Clarke said the tax will go a long way.
“It’s clear that, if enacted with a two-dollar-a-pack increase, we’ll be in a position to bring more than $40 million in half a fiscal year, and subsequently $80 million for the school district,” Clarke told KYW Newsradio. “That far surpasses the request (for $60 million) that was made from the SRC (School Reform Commission).”
Nutter also wants to raise the existing liquor-by-the-drink tax to help the schools, but that bill did not advance out of committee.
Clarke indicated that City Council may prefer to see the administration boost compliance with the liquor tax, rather than simply raising it from 10 percent to 15 percent as the mayor proposes.
Both the cigarette and liquor changes require the approval of state lawmakers in Harrisburg, and Clarke said city officials are writing the legislature to push for those approvals.
“We’ll be sending a letter, signed by the mayor, myself, and Pedro Ramos (chairman) of the SRC, requesting support from the General Assembly for passage of enabling legislation for both tobacco and alcohol. It’s a process that allows us to show unity,” Clarke said.
Support for the cigarette tax came today from health advocates, who said at today’s hearing they believe the additional levy would deter people from starting or continuing to smoke. Among them was Jonathan Kirch of the American Heart Association.
“There is ample evidence that raising the price for cigarettes and tobacco products reduces the number of people who smoke,” Kirch said.
Curtis Jones, the Democratic majority leader on Council, said those health arguments make Council more likely to give this new cigarette tax final approval next month.
“Most members are supportive of this kind of measure, because at the end of the day it’s a health issue,” he said.
But Jones admits that Council and the mayor are moving this legislation, first and foremost, for the revenue.
“That’s where the money is,” Jones said. “And some of that demand is inelastic. Our first intent is to raise revenue. But in the back of our minds, if I can stop (a constituent) from smoking, I may save her life.”
Councilmembers want to give final approval to a new budget before adjourning on June 20th. This would include settling on new money for the schools, and setting a property tax rate and other relief measures under the new AVI assessment system (see related stories).