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Fireworks makers sue Wolf over 2017 budget-balancing bill
Manufacturers are suing Gov. Tom Wolf and other Pennsylvania officials over a 2017 law that hiked taxes on certain types of fireworks while at the same time allowing more people to buy them.
The nation’s largest retailer of fireworks — Phantom Fireworks Showrooms — filed a complaint Jan. 19 in Commonwealth Court against Wolf and other state leaders. The lawsuit alleges Act 43, the revenue plan that passed the Legislature in October 2017 to balance the state's $2.2 billion budget gap, is unconstitutional.
The six petitioners — Phantom, Sky King Fireworks of Easton Inc., Sky King Fireworks of Erie Inc., Sky King Fireworks of Morrisville Inc., Sky King Fireworks of Tioga LLC and CRJ Enterprises LLC — oppose Act 43's new fireworks licensing, regulation and sales-tax provisions.
Lawmakers last year approved a 12 percent tax on more powerful fireworks, which is on top of the state’s 6 percent sales tax. Novelty items remained taxed at 6 percent.
According to the lawsuit, “although the fireworks sellers only specifically question the fireworks provisions of Act 43 and not any of the law’s other specific provisions, their lawsuit nonetheless asks the court to declare Act 43 unconstitutional in its entirety and enjoin its enforcement.”
The revenue plan incorporated borrowing $1.5 billion, which will be paid through tobacco settlement proceeds, major expansion of legalized gaming, and applying Pennsylvania's 6 percent sales tax to goods sold in online market places. Wolf signed the revenue bill Oct. 30, 2017.
The document continues, “The Commonwealth is evaluating the fireworks sellers’ lawsuit and the Commonwealth’s response to the fireworks sellers’ claims. The Commonwealth expects to vigorously defend Act 43 before the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.”
Defendants named in the case include Wolf; Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding; Revenue Secretary C. Daniel Hassell; Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson; and Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.
Wolf was notified of the lawsuit Jan. 22.
The act also expanded to whom fireworks could be sold. Pennsylvanians can now purchase the same items as out-of-state visitors, who were allowed to buy items such as aerial spinners or helicopters, Roman candles, and mine and shell devices not exceeding 500 grams.
Bill Hunt, manager of Phantom Fireworks of Shrewsbury in New Freedom, said since the law changed, his sales have been "great" because Pennsylvania residents are curious about what they are now allowed to buy. Long-term, Hunt said, he's unsure about how the law will affect his business.
The Phantom Fireworks website reports the showroom carries a full line of fireworks including assortments, repeaters, rockets, novelties and more. The nationwide company has seven retail stores, and 20 retail partners, throughout Pennsylvania.
"We couldn't buy anything that left the ground or pop like a firecracker," Hunt said.
Hunt added he didn't know anything about the lawsuit.
Local municipalities are starting to talk about ordinances pertaining to the state's new fireworks law. Hunt said he understands why.
"We can't 100 percent educate people because you're going to get the people who use them how they're not supposed to use them no matter what. The only thing we can do is try our best to make sure people don't do that," Hunt said, explaining that he guides consumers to Phantom Fireworks' website to watch safety demo videos.
York Township solicitor Steven Hovis, of Stock and Leader, recently addressed commissioners about the fireworks legislation. He said they have to look at it from both professional and consumer points of view.
He said at York Township's recent regular commissioners meeting he’d soon be working with township staff to develop language that addresses township rules. He said there is a need to have a plan in place for emergencies that would affect the fire department and other township resources.
Hovis noted restrictions, such as that consumer fireworks cannot be set off on public lands, as well as that a consumer has to be 150 feet away from a structure on private lands in order to avoid penalties.
“Recently, the state Legislature adopted legislation that would allow for permitting consumer fireworks to be discharged,” Hovis said. “Those are larger fireworks than what were previously allowed to be sold.”