By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Support for the Property Tax Elimination Act is at a groundswell.
On Tuesday afternoon, under September sun and surrounded by red, white and blue, around 200 Pennsylvanians gathered on the Capitol steps to continue their push for passage of House Bill 76, would swap more than $10 billion in school property taxes with increases in income and sales taxes.
Some lawmakers called them heroes. Other leaders called them patriots. Some deemed them activists and citizen lobbyists. Jim Rodkey, project chair of Lebanon 9-12, had the first applause line of the dozen or so speakers who stood at the podium in the 45-minute long event.
“No tax should have the power to leave you homeless,” Rodkey said.
HB 76 aims to be revenue-neutral, not raising more or less for school districts than property taxes would, and alleviate homeowners from the weight of rising rates.
The bill has gained support in the Senate and House — and plausibly, among citizens. But recent efforts to get rid of some school property taxes, instead of eliminating them altogether, appear to be more palatable to some lawmakers.
Rep. Jim Cox, R-Berks, a lead sponsor of HB 76, said his caucus is divided. “It’s gonna get ugly,” he said, predicting there’s plenty more discussion to come on property taxes this fall.
The bill has 91 co-sponsors in the House and 24 in the Senate, a bipartisan showing that includes lawmakers from areas like Philadelphia, the Lehigh Valley and south central Pennsylvania. But other lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, support allowing individual school boards to decide whether to replace property taxes with other revenue streams.
That legislation, House Bill 1189, passed out of the House Finance Committee meeting Monday. The bill won’t do it for Cox, or those of the Pennsylvania Taxpayer Cyber Coalition, an organizer behind Tuesday’s rally.
“They’re not willing to settle for this little thing we call relief and reform,” Cox said.
Supporters on Tuesday were steadfast in their dedication to HB 76, reading off name-by-name the co-sponsors, and applauding individually. Some had arrived in Harrisburg by buses charted by taxpayer advocate groups, while others drove themselves. Rodkey told them their chief job was to lobby lawmakers, namely the Senate, to get more co-sponsors.
Assuming all co-sponsors would cast a “yea” vote for HB 76, the proposal needs 11 more in the House and two in the Senate to pass, much smaller margins than when the bill was introduced last session. Support among the citizenry has grown, too. Around 31 member groups participated in such advocacy in 2011, now there are 81.
House Finance Committee Chairman Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, who supports HB 1189, said the property tax issue has been around for decades, as no plan has had enough legislative support. Some districts don’t have issue with increased property taxes, and as such, all-out elimination proposals have come and gone.
“The reality is, those bills don’t garnish votes,” he said. “You got to raise income taxes pretty high, you got to raise sales taxes pretty high, in order to make those flexible.”
The dollar-for-dollar elimination proposed in HB 76 is opposed for other reasons. Sharon Ward, executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, said the bill locks in education spending cuts.
“The real solution is for the governor and state lawmakers to step up and increase state funding for schools,” she said. “This will take pressure off local property taxes without upending the system for education our state needs to grow and children need to thrive.”
Eliminating property taxes altogether is a cause that Democrats, Republicans, citizens and elected officials have gotten behind in the face of tax-related foreclosures. Supporters on Tuesday toted signs like “Eliminate Property Taxes NOW!! Unfair/Unconstitutional,” “Replace School Property Taxes/Let Us Keep Our Homes,” and at least one “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, one of several Revolutionary War messages of the day.
Supporters argue seniors who have paid off their homes or young families getting started cannot afford property tax bills while on a fixed income or while paying a mortgage. Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe, said unsustainable property taxes causes irreparable harm to communities.
“The American dream of owning your home is destroyed,” she said.
Contact Melissa Daniels at [email protected]