Gov. Tom Corbett on Wednesday asked state lawmakers to end their vacation early to address legislation concerning a Philadelphia schools funding gap that threatens to delay the school year in the state's largest school district.
"I'm calling for the Legislature though to come to Harrisburg before school starts," Corbett said at a news conference with Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite at his side. "And I expect them to address this issue as their first and number one order of business."
The ball is in lawmakers' court. Leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate alone have the power to return to the Capitol to approve a $2-a-pack cigarette tax to help the Philadelphia school system bridge a multimillion dollar deficit.
Neither chamber has indicated it will oblige Corbett's call. House and Senate sessions are scheduled for Sept. 15, too late to help Philadelphia plan the start of its school year.
The governor could demand lawmakers return to Harrisburg this month, at least for a day, by calling a special session. But many Capitol insiders suggest that might be even less effective than politely requesting legislative action.
"The call to special session would require the Legislature to come in at a particular day, at a particular time, and to have some sort of session that day," said Erik Arneson, spokesman for the Republican Senate majority leader. "But then if the Legislature wanted to, it could not-reconvene that special session again. It could wind up just being a one-day deal. And obviously, nothing gets accomplished in a one-day special session."
The legislation that contains the cigarette tax authorization has received preliminary approval in the House and Senate, but peripheral issues within the same bill are causing disagreement within the chambers' Republican majorities.
An early return Harrisburg looked doubtful Monday as the Senate president pro tem exited the governor's office after a meeting with Corbett and other legislative leaders.
"We have no plan to come back," said Sen. Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) of his own chamber. "We're working on votes."
A spokesman for Republican House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) said Wednesday that members are still "working through the issues" nestled in the same bill as the cigarette tax authorization.
"We haven't heard it on our side of the aisle," said House Democratic spokesman Bill Patton when asked about an August session. He dismissed Corbett's calls for an early return. "Unless he calls a special session, he knows the people empowered to make that happen are the very people he had in his office Monday morning."
Absent a final vote, Corbett said Wednesday that the budget office would advance the district $265 million - not new money for the district, but already-appropriated funding sent earlier than usual. The governor said it would help the system with cash flow and minimize borrowing.
Hite, Philadelphia's superintendent, said the advance does not mean schools can open on time, or that the district will avert layoffs, program reductions, and ballooning class sizes.