Eliminate Pennsylvania school property taxes? Expect fresh debate after new bills go out in July
By FORD TURNER | THE MORNING CALL | JUN 10, 2019 | 7:36 PM | HARRISBURG
As some of the biggest and most-disliked bills of all — school property tax bills — arrive in mailboxes across Pennsylvania in July, the long-lasting conversation about eliminating that tax is expected to resume.
State Sen. David G. Argall, a Schuylkill County Republican, said Friday legislative discussions are likely in July and August, following a stretch in which there was little movement on the perennial issue.
“What the results will be on those, I don’t know,” he said.
School property tax bills totaling more than $14 billion statewide are issued after the July 1 start of the fiscal year. Senior citizens on fixed incomes are among those who have the most difficult time paying the tax, set locally by school districts and frequently increased.
Initiatives to repeal or replace the tax have been around for decades. Argall has introduced such legislation — which also would compensate for the billions in lost revenue with a variety of increases of other taxes — in each of the last three legislative sessions.
The last vote on one of those measures took place in 2015. A 24-24 tie in the Senate was broken by a negative vote by then-Lt. Gov. Mike Stack.
Argall’s current bill was referred to the Senate Finance Committee in February.
The pending summertime discussions will be held by a working group that includes caucus leaders from both chambers of the General Assembly, according to Sen. Mike Folmer, a Lebanon County Republican and co-sponsor of Argall’s bill.
“Leadership is getting involved, which I think is a good sign,” Folmer said Monday.
But opposition to the tax changes has been widespread and deep.
Groups representing children, insurance agents, bankers, churches and the news media signed on to a 2015 memo from the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry opposing that year’s bill.
While the chamber has not done a formal poll recently, members who have expressed concern about the latest proposal are “a diverse set of our membership,” said Alex Halper, director of government affairs for the chamber.
The chamber shares concerns about onerous property taxes, Halper said, but the current bill, Senate Bill 76, presents problems that outweigh those concerns.
Halper said it fails to address the “core problem” of the dynamics inflating the cost of public schools. And, he said, its heavy reliance on sales and other taxes would make school funding vulnerable to swings in the economy.
Those fluctuations, Halper said, would “put public education in a much more precarious position.”
One of the groups that remains opposed to tax shift legislation is Feeding Pennsylvania, which represents eight food banks affiliated with the national nonprofit Feeding America.
Executive Director Jane Clements-Smith said 82% of the people served by the food banks do not own real estate. Passage of the bill, she said, would mean that the vast majority of her constituents would pay more taxes on food and other items but receive no offsetting tax break.
She said the shift would burden people who are already struggling.
Since the 2015 vote, Argall said, several senators who voted in favor of the measure have retired or been defeated in elections.
State Sens. Pat Browne, a Lehigh Republican, and Lisa Boscola, a Northampton Democrat, did not respond to requests for comment. Browne and Boscola both voted in favor of the 2015 tax shift measure.
The trick in the summer conversations, Argall said, will be to come up with the right combination of offsetting taxes to garner 26 votes in the Senate and 102 in the House.
Folmer said a huge amount of effort went into the 2015 bill.
For example, he said, when an exception to the sales tax expansion was made for clothing sold for less than $50, questions of whether the clothing was on sale or involved a coupon or rebate had to be addressed.
That bill, Folmer said, was “ready for prime time” and was updated to produce the current bill.
In a written statement, co-sponsor Sen. John Yudichak, a Carbon County Democrat, said he was frustrated by the lack of progress this session.
Because of the stalemate, Yudichak said he and Bucks County Republican Sen. Robert Tomlinson are working on legislation that would expand a property tax rent rebate program that would relieve qualified senior citizens of at least some of their school property tax burden.
On Monday, the state Department of Revenue said the deadline for senior citizens and the disabled to apply for rebates on 2018 rent and taxes — including school property taxes — was extended from June 30 to Dec. 31.
Last year, nearly 572,000 seniors and people with disabilities benefited from the program, department spokesman Dan Hassell said.
Harrisburg correspondent Ford Turner can be reached at 717-783-7305 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Ford Turner is Capitol correspondent and an investigative reporter for The Morning Call in Harrisburg. He has worked at news outlets in other states, but much of his career has been spent in Pennsylvania.