Northwestern Press

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Thursday, August 23, 2012 by SEN. DAVID ARGALL, R-29th Special to The Press in Opinion

Why we are not giving up on the fight to eliminate school district property taxes

The Senate Finance Committee recently held its first public hearing on Senate Bill 1400, also known as the Property Tax Independence Act.

This is legislation I introduced at the direct request of thousands of residents throughout the six counties I represent and 72 taxpayer groups across Pennsylvania, led by the Pennsylvania Taxpayers Cyber Coalition.

Despite this strong support, during the public hearings in the Senate and the State House, Senate Bill 1400, along with its counterpart, House Bill 1776, have received mixed reviews.

This is not a new fight but it certainly has evolved since our most recent battles in the past decade with then Rep. Sam Rohrer's proposal.

At the public hearing and at rallies across the state, I have pointed out that in 1953, the State Legislature and the Gov. John S. Fine enacted its first 1 cent sales tax "for education," tripled state aid for education, but failed to kill off the school district property tax.

In 1971, after a long battle, the General Assembly and then Gov. Milton Shapp created the state's first 2.3 percent income tax, known as the "Emergency Income Tax," but it failed to kill off the school district property tax.

Also in the 1970s, the General Assembly and Shapp legalized a state lottery, which helps some senior citizens with their property taxes but far from all.

In 2006, the Legislature and then Gov. Ed Rendell, for the very first time, changed the law so that school districts can't increase taxes by more than the rate of inflation, but that has proven to be far from satisfactory.

The Legislature and then Gov. Ed Rendell also legalized casino gaming in 2004 and that has only helped most people with only a small fraction of their property taxes.

In 2011, the Legislature and Gov. Tom Corbett passed Senate Bill 330, which further strengthened the Taxpayer Relief Act, which requires school districts to place spending increases above the rate of inflation on the ballot for voters to decide.

Also in 2011, state Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-122nd; Sen. John Yudichak, D-14th; and I introduced a bill (Senate Bill 990) that would put the four most popular property tax reform proposals on the ballot for the voters to vote upon.

That bill has yet to be brought up for a vote.

For as long as I've been alive, the school district property tax has been among the most universally hated taxes in Pennsylvania.

What has changed during this long battle to finally give us renewed hope to eliminate this tax?

One major change is that now, senators and representatives in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions are receiving the same phone calls and emails as rural legislators against this tax due to recent controversial property reassessments.

It is my hope that these recent controversies will turn no votes into yes votes.

The Senate Finance Committee's hearing revealed another hurdle to overcome: Opposing special interest groups, who object to our plan because it would eliminate the property tax by raising the state sales tax by 1 percent and expand it to goods and services not already taxed.

While these groups disagree, I don't believe there is anything worse than losing your home due to high property taxes.

The Senate committee's recent hearing represents the first time in many years that this issue has been brought up in the Senate.

My bipartisan cosponsors and I believe that past efforts to "tweak" the system are simply not the answer.

Property owners want this hated tax killed off once and for all.

While the opposition mounts its case against the Property Tax Independence Act, so do the phone calls and e-mails pouring into offices of elected officials in support of these bills.

Senate Bill 1400 is co-sponsored by Senators Mike Folmer, R-48th; Jeffrey Piccola, R-15th; Richard Alloway, R-33rd; John Eichelberger, R-30th; Edwin Erickson, R-26th; Jim Ferlo, D-38th; Bob Mensch, R-24th; John Rafferty, R-44th; Judith Schwank, D-11th; Mike Waugh, R-28th; John Wozniak, D-35th; and John Yudichak, D-14th.

After hearing concerns about adequate funding, Sen. Schwank and I requested the Independent Fiscal Office to provide a thorough analysis of Senate Bill 1400.

This report will be available in September to provide us the facts we need to ensure we effectively fund our public schools while killing off this hated tax once and for all.

The opposition is strong, but I believe our support is stronger.

This issue remains the No. 1 issue I hear about in each of the six counties I represent.

For this reason alone, we are not giving up, despite the odds stacked against us.