Budget ‘Victory’? New Cigarette Tax Is No Solution To The Manufactured Crisis In Philadelphia Public Schools

Last week, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a state budget that once again fails to address the needs of the working class residents of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.  However, our state’s Democrats are lauding this budget and a “hard-fought” public school funding deal that lawmakers say will provide only $45 million to Philadelphia’s public schools as a legislative victory.

Philadelphia’s Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter, echoed state Democrats and called the cigarette tax deal “possibly one of the greatest turnarounds” in recent legislative history.  The cigarette tax deal pushes the burden of funding public schools further onto the backs of working people, characteristic of “sin” taxes on cigarettes and other controlled substances.

We need a more equitable funding formula for public schools across the state, not another sin tax.  Implementing regressive sin taxes on Philadelphia’s residents, the state’s poorest population, to fund our students’ constitutionally-guaranteed right to public education is THE LEAST our elected officials can do. The cigarette tax represents an abhorrent lack of imagination and complete lack of political spine from the Democratic politicians who tell us they represent the interests of the working class, while the state’s Republican lawmakers are more blatant with their attempts to defund urban schools. Neither of our political parties could do less to raise revenue for our schools.

Moreover, there is speculation that Democratic legislators may have traded votes with Republicans and agreed to gut public employees’ pension plans later this month. In essence, our elected officials won the permission to impose regressive taxes on workers in exchange for cutting workers’ retirement plans. We do not call this a win for Philadelphia workers or students– it’s yet another another false choice.

This backroom deal is also decidedly not, as Mayor Nutter called it, any sort of “turnaround” in the way our city and state has raised revenue for basic public services. We must be clear: this  cigarette tax deal is more of the same we’ve seen from Philadelphia’s politicians. Philadelphia’s Democratic leadership has aided and abetted corporate welfare at the expense of the working class interests for decades.

Democratic Philadelphia State Representative Jim Roebuck, who is the chairman of the House Education Committee, said in an email to his constituents, “I and other Democratic legislators have been working hard to find other ways to make sure Philadelphia schools can open safely this fall. The least the current majority [Republican] party can do is to allow our city to come up with more local funding.” Getting the Republicans permission to further exploit the working people of Philadelphia is all the Democrats are able to achieve. Both parties have failed.

Elected officials need to implement policies such as ending the millions of dollars in corporate handouts to Comcast and Shell, ending 10-year tax abatements to large real estate developers and wealthy property owners, and holding big banks like Wells Fargo accountable for the destabilizing interest-rate swap deals that continue to drain millions of dollars from our city and the School District of Philadelphia. Our lawmakers should renegotiate bad-faith and deceptive deals made with big banks to ensure our public money funds public institutions, not Wall Street’s profits.

We as Philadelphians must recognize that these unceasing and sweeping cuts to public services and infrastructure are not merely going to disappear by voting Governor Corbett out of office in November 2014. Cuts for the 99% are the agenda for both Democrats and Republicans. Both parties serve the interests of big business and big banks and will continue to make policies that allow the wealthy 1% and their corporations to dodge taxes, while saddling the poor with higher taxes for lower quality services–until we stop them.

The drive for profit over the needs of working class families, and the monopolistic power of the corporate few is inherent to the nature of capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t work for the 99%.

Now is the time to build mass opposition to these continued attacks on our living standards. The only way to do this is to build our own political power, including running candidates  independent of the Democrats and Republicans, to fight big business in the street and at the ballot box.

It’s time to build an independent, alternative, political party funded entirely by organized working people, backed by a mass grassroots movement of workers and youth. Socialist Alternative works to help build such a party and to give it a fighting socialist program which can win victories for the working class, like we showed in Seattle. Freed of the monied interests of corporate power, we will be able to challenge the neoliberal economic agenda that is stripping Philadelphia of its wealth.

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