A good start
A sound proposal to raise the cigarette tax in Philadelphia to help fund struggling public schools there begs the question: what about the other 66 counties?
Now, some legislators are working on a partial, promising answer.
State Rep. John Lawrence, a Chester County Republican, wants to increase the state cigarette tax by 80 cents everywhere in Pennsylvania other than Philadelphia, where it would increase by $2.
The state's $1.60 per-pack cigarette tax raised $1.02 billion during the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to the Department of Revenue. Mr. Lawrence believes that the tax increase would generate about $382 million in its first year, which he would dedicate to reducing the school property tax bills of people older than 65 with annual incomes of less than $35,000.
Several other legislators also have suggested that the Legislature should not focus the cigarette tax increase solely on Philadelphia.
The proposals likely would have the added benefit of reducing the statewide smoking rate, which at 21.2 percent remains stubbornly higher than the national average of 19.7 percent. That, in turn, would help to save state money that goes to treat tobacco-caused illnesses.
Unfortunately, the Lawrence proposal is not property tax reform. It would offset some costs for a limited constituency, whereas all Pennsylvania taxpayers need property tax reform.
A better approach would be to make the increased cigarette tax one component of a much broader effort to reduce or eliminate local school property taxes. By eliminating the Delaware corporate tax loophole, establishing a tax on cigars and chew tobacco, eliminating a fee for retailers who collect the sales tax as a part of doing business, and establishing a long-overdue tax on natural gas extraction, the Legislature could shift much more of the school funding obligation from school districts to the state government, where it belongs.
That also would eliminate inherent disparities in resources between affluent districts and those that rely on fractured local tax bases.
Raising the cigarette tax across the board would be a good start, but lawmakers should go all the way on property tax reform.