By FORD TURNER

THE MORNING CALL |

OCT 17, 2019 | 7:21 PM

State Sen. David Argall on Thursday told a group of real estate professionals that he wants a group of lawmakers to present a plan this year for reducing or eliminating school property taxes. (Ford Turner / The Morning Call)

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is likely to recommend cutting or eliminating school property taxes by raising state income and sales taxes, the group’s leader said Thursday.

State Sen. David Argall was asked earlier this year by Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman to lead the group, which has met repeatedly since mid-summer seeking a plan to eliminate or reduce the much-despised school property levy. The Schuylkill County Republican said the group wants to get a plan before the full Senate or House this year to avoid the intense political feelings that will come with next year’s presidential election. His comments came during a Thursday luncheon of real estate professionals in his home county and in an interview afterward.

Although the group is still working, Argall said a likely result would be a recommendation to raise both sales and income taxes.

The recommended sales tax increase would likely be less than 1 percentage point, meaning the current rate of 6 percent across much of the state would go to a level of less than 7 percent, Argall said. Philadelphia’s rate is 8 percent.

He said Philadelphia’s block of seven senators likely would oppose an increase of 1 percentage point. Out of 50 senators total, Argall said, “That is a pretty significant block to say, ‘Oh, we don’t need your help.’”

No clear consensus has emerged in the tax group on how much of an increase should be recommended for the state’s personal income tax, currently at 3.07 percent.

Reluctance by some lawmakers on raising the income tax, Argall said, is tied to worries that future election opponents will distribute “really ugly pieces of mail” against them for doing so. He said it’s easier for lawmakers to justify such votes if a lot of their constituents dislike the property tax.

Argall said his district is such a “hotbed” of opposition to the property tax he can’t go to a store or a Cub Scout meeting without being asked what he’s doing about it. But other lawmakers, Argall said, have worked in their districts for five, 10 or even 15 years and never heard a complaint about the tax.

The 15 to 20 lawmakers on the tax group, who have been joined at times by a member of Gov. Tom Wolf’s staff, roughly agree their plan must be able to pass the GOP-majority House and Senate and earn Democrat Wolf’s signature.

One of those members, Democratic Sen. Lisa Boscola of Northampton County, said the Senate’s Democratic caucus is expected to have a discussion next week on the options the work group has considered.

Lawmakers have tried for decades to replace or repeal the school property tax, a crucial part of state education funding that is believed by many to be levied in unfair fashion. Tax bills typically are issued in early summer and add up to more than $14 billion statewide.

The most urgent complaints about the tax come from seniors on fixed incomes. The median age of Schuylkill County residents is 44.2, compared to 40.7 statewide.

The roots of using a property tax to fund schools in Pennsylvania go back to 1834, Argall said Thursday.

“It is very clear that this is a very unfair tax, a very archaic tax. It’s time has come and gone, a long time ago,” he said.

Argall repeatedly has introduced legislation to replace or repeal the tax and compensate for the lost revenue with increases in other taxes.

A wide array of organizations including food banks, schools, an association of architects and bar associations have opposed the tax-shift concepts. On Thursday, Argall mentioned opposition from business groups, labor groups, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

His appearance came amid a burst of activity in real estate groups engaging the property tax issue.

On Wednesday, Greater Lehigh Valley Realtors hosted a speaker and discussion involving property taxes. Next week, a real estate professionals’ group in Berks County is scheduled to host a town hall which is, according to a press release, “in support of school property tax elimination.”

Alex Charlton, a former state lawmaker who recently became director of public policy and political affairs for the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors, attended Argall’s appearance on Thursday.

“Something has to be done,” he said. “The burden has just become too onerous.”

When school property taxes are actually causing people to lose their homes, Charlton said, “That is not private property rights. That is government mandating who can live there.”