Renewing the Fight for School Property Tax Reform
I am writing to provide my constituents with a straightforward assessment of where we have been and where we are headed with continued efforts to reform the outdated and burdensome school property tax.
Just the mere mention of this hated tax prompts calls of “Pass HB/SB 76 now!” “Eliminate or nothing!” and any manner of blame leveled at the state, the schools and even our teachers.
Others chalk up school property tax elimination as a fairy tale saying, “That’ll happen when the train comes!”
Some will even point their frustration at me as the sole reason nothing has happened. But, no matter how many times you repeat something, it doesn’t make it true. Some may choose to attack and berate me for my work on reform, while letting legislators who have been silent on this issue off the hook. There may be others working as hard as me on reform, but there is no one working harder.
Even simply using the word “reform” will raise objections that one does not support “elimination.” However, for today’s purposes, I will use reform to speak generally about all the school property tax proposals being considered.
Not a day goes by in Harrisburg during which I am not trying to sway more votes in favor of addressing the school property tax crisis. Those who think they do not have a property tax problem either A) deceive themselves or B) are being unfairly subsidized by other areas of the state like my district.
Throughout my career, I have introduced or co-sponsored school property tax elimination and reduction proposals going back more than 15 years. These proposals range from plans that would have reduced school property taxes by 50% to current proposals like Senate Bill 76 that propose full elimination on all properties.
Following the overwhelming 2017 public vote in favor of expanding the Commonwealth’s Homestead Exclusion Program, I acted quickly and authored a bill that would eliminate school property taxes on ALL owner-occupied homes. This bill has been reintroduced again for the 2021 – 2022 legislative session and I’m currently working to gather support for it.
As school property tax elimination measures have faced resistance, I have also introduced a second and third proposal that together would provide significant or even total relief specifically to seniors. Specifically, my legislation would provide for a property tax rebate of up to $5,000 for all seniors age 65 and older who have an annual household income of $60,000 or less. Only half of an individual’s Social Security benefits would count towards the income limit. For example, if you receive $20,000 in Social Security, only $10,000 would be counted. That rebate would eliminate or significantly reduce the school property tax burden on Pennsylvania’s seniors. This legislation expands upon the already existing Property Tax Rent Rebate (PTRR) Program.
To fund this tax relief, Senate Bill 591 provides for a one-half percent increase in the sales and use tax. This legislation does not expand the sales and use tax to other items — all currently taxable items would remain the same.
My pro-reform colleagues and I have all said until we are blue in the face – our seniors have not had children in school for decades and they are being forced to make critical decisions between such expenses as food and medication versus paying their school property taxes. Despite years of paying their taxes faithfully, they never truly own their home. Force these seniors out of their home and often you have families that move in with multiple children. Each additional child that enters a district brings with them a roughly $20,000 cost to the school district per year. Our current system is broken and outdated, we need to diversify the ways we fund our schools.
No matter what approach we take, one fact remains to pass any proposal: you need the support of 26 Senators, 102 Representatives and a Governor willing to sign a bill.
School property tax reform is not a Republican or Democrat issue – it’s a regional one. The fight for reform is generally between the less-populated, yet faster growing regions like ours and the slower growing, more populous urban areas of the Commonwealth. Any area with a population that has remained stable or declined has seen less pressure on the school tax. Less people means less buildings and fewer staff needs.
I have always pleaded the case for our region and our historic lack of education funding, but powers-that-be from the decade before I took office saw the writing on the wall and preserved funding for their areas, many of which were in decline, at the expense of growing areas like ours. Now, thirty years later, the areas of the state that receive their “fair share” of education funding still fight against areas like ours who were left to fight over pennies.
Let me be clear – If even one senior or family loses their home to school taxes, that’s one too many. Our battle cry remains, no tax should have the power to leave you homeless! I am hopeful the Governor works with the Legislature to pass a proposal that provides real reform and actual relief, not just more dollars to the areas that already have them.
Politics is rarely an all-or-nothing game and, when it comes to school property taxes, I would rather a bite at the apple than no apple at all. Otherwise, we may find ourselves no closer to reform and having this same conversation in another 15 years.
I’m often asked how people can help the cause and my answer is simple. Keep up the pressure – continue to elect those legislators who are fighting the property tax fight and reach out to those who are not yet on board to express your concern.
My promise to you is that I will continue the fight. I hope others do the same.
If you have any further questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me.
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