As the late Yogi Berra used to say, "It's deja vu all over again."
Yes, once again a bill has been introduced in the Pennsylvania Legislature to eliminate school property taxes. This one is being co-sponsored by state Reps. Pam Snyder, D-Greene/Fayette/Washington, Marcia Hahn, R-Northampton, and Rosemary M. Brown, R-Monroe/Pike.
It's the latest in a long series of attempts to abolish the much hated school property taxes. But so far the Legislature has been unable or unwilling to accomplish that task.
The biggest attempt came in 2015 when Gov. Tom Wolf made the elimination of school property taxes a main part of his budget plan. To make up for the revenue being lost, he proposed major increases in the sales and income taxes. Republicans objected strenuously to the increases and the result was the longest budget impasse in the state's history. A spending plan wasn't agreed to until March of the following year.
While still calling for tax reform, Wolf has backed away from trying to eliminate school property taxes since then. It was interesting that in the gubernatorial election last November, Republican candidate Scott Walker called for the elimination of property taxes. However, the issue stir much interest as he was crushed at the polls by Wolf.
It's no secret, though, that everyone hates property taxes, especially senior citizens who end up paying school property taxes for years after their sons and daughters have long since graduated from high school.
“I hear from seniors and homeowners regularly about this property tax burden and how unfair and costly it is to them,” Snyder said. “We realize that school districts need adequate funding to operate, but not on the backs of taxpayers, including first-time home buyers and family farms,''
However, there are some major problems with trying to eliminate the taxes as there's been strong opposition from numerous groups on both sides of the political aisle. The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry has opposed the move in the past, claiming that it just shifts taxes without addressing the rising costs which are behind the tax increases.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has also opposed the move, claiming that it could lead to underfunded schools. Some claim that the cut would be a boon to large corporations who would see their taxes dropped dramatically. Others contend that property taxes would have to remain in some form until districts loans and debts are paid off.
The shift would also do nothing to address the fundamental issue of fairness in school funding. Since local school districts are so reliant on property taxes, officials in affluent areas can spend much more for the education of their students than their counterparts in poorer areas of the state.
According to a 2017 study by Penn-Live, the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District in Chester County spent the most money of any district in the state, allocating $12,202 to educate each of its students. It spent $3,364 more on instructional costs than the state median amount and $5,249 than the national average.
On the other end was the Hazleton Area School District in Luzerne County, which spent the lowest amount of money, allocating $6,351 to educate each of its students. It spent $2,487 less per-student on instructional costs than the state median amount and $602 less than the national average.
Another drawback is how school districts across the state would replace the $14 billion that is raised through school property taxes. The easiest way would be to simply raise the sales tax, doing away with all of its numerous exemptions and hiking the state's income tax.
This bill doesn't include an increase in the sales tax and there's no talk about doing away with any exemptions. But it does call for increasing the income tax from 3.07 percent to 4.87 percent, an increase of 1.08 percent or slightly more than 50 percent. How people would react to such a big increase is unknown but it's certainly more than the 20 percent increase advocated by Gov. Wolf back in 2015, which drew the ire of so many Republicans.
So, can it succeed? Practically speaking, the bill comes too late to be voted on before the Legislature takes its summer recess at the end of June. It could be considered in the fall or when the Legislature reconvenes in January. That would give time for the trio of state representatives to try and drum up support for the measure.
Perhaps times have changed, and they could finally push the bill over the finish line. Or it could be just another exercise in futility like all the other similar bills which have gone nowhere.