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As clock ticks, PA lawmakers devise plan to revive property tax elimination bill

By   /   August 19, 2014  /   No Comments

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

One year and five months — that’s how long bipartisan legislation that would eliminate school property taxes in Pennsylvania has been stuck in the Pennsylvania Senate’s Finance Committee.

“It seems like we’ve been pushing it for years,” said state Sen. David Argall, the Schuylkill County Republican who is one of the main sponsors of Senate Bill 76.

Argall and other advocates of the bill earlier this summer acknowledged it doesn’t have the support to emerge from committee. That’s kept it from a full floor vote. Yet Argall’s still confident property tax elimination advocates can claim victory this year, even if the bill is never voted out of committee.

SIMPLE PLAN: State Sen, David Argall wants to amend his property tax elimination legislation into another bill to revive its chances of passing his chamber.

SIMPLE PLAN: State Sen, David Argall wants to amend his property tax elimination legislation into another bill to revive its chances of passing his chamber.

There’s a simple strategy taking shape — just amend the legislation into another bill that’s already ready for a floor vote. Talks with chamber leaders have already identified possible vehicles, Argall said.

“I believe we have the votes we need on the floor,” Argall said.

The legislation would eliminate school property taxes and replace the revenue with a higher sales and personal income tax. The sales tax would also be expanded to apply to more goods and services.

It’s popular plan among grassroots groups, but it has drawn opposition from the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center and plenty of other groups. Critics say a higher sales tax could hurt low-income workers and leave schools with an unstable funding stream.

Concerns led to the House version of the legislation failing last year, and Senate Bill 76 bottled up in committee.

Besides an amendment to a different bill, there’s another, more complicated option to extract it.

Senate rules allow lawmakers to use discharge resolutions to pluck out legislation that’s stuck in committee. They’re rarely used, and Argall said it’s been decades since one was successful.

Discharge resolutions can also come with consequences, said an aide to state Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, another leading advocate of Senate Bill 76.

Fred Sembach, Folmer’s chief of staff, said using a discharge resolution could open the door to other legislation being pulled out of committee before it’s property vetted.

“When you start throwing discharge resolutions around, one of them could boomerang,” he said.

The last possibility is that the bill will simply sit in committee. When the session ends in November, it will die like the other bills that didn’t make it to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk for a signature by then.

That would be disappointing, said state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne. At the same time, though, he’s been encouraged about the high-level talks regarding property tax reform, as well as discussions about a new school funding formula.

Over history, big-ticket policy changes have needed a governor campaigning for them, Yudichak said. In this case, Corbett has said he’d sign the bill if it reached his desk, but has focused his statewide tours on issues such as pension reform — which he argues will lead to property tax relief.

“Why he hasn’t done that is beyond me, but he certainly has an opportunity in this fall session to step up and get out from behind the desk and say, ‘I’m not going to wait for it to get to me, I’m going to make it happen,’” Yudichak said.

Until the Senate returns in September, nothing’s happening, the same as it’s been for nearly a year and a half.

“My goal, of course, is to get it done,” Argall said. “If it doesn’t, I’m more than willing to re-introduce it in January.”

Staub can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

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Andrew Staub is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org based in central Pennsylvania. Contact him at astaub@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @AndrewStaub.

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