WILKES-BARRE — An independent, nonpartisan research group says eliminating school property taxes would do “irreparable harm” to Pennsylvania students.
Sharon Ward, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, says proposed legislation pending in Harrisburg “pulls the rug out” from under the public education system and ignores the real problem — that too few state dollars support our schools.
“Years of state funding cuts have already diminished the long-term prospects for Pennsylvania students,” Ward said. “Schools have had to lay off 20,000 teachers and staff, which has resulted in increased class sizes and cuts to full-day kindergarten, music and the arts.”
Ward and the PBPC released their statement on the same day that hundreds of people rallied in Harrisburg to urge legislators to enact legislation that would eliminate what they call a burdensome and unfair tax and replace the lost revenue by increasing the state earned income and sales taxes.
Several members of the Luzerne County Citizens Against Property Taxes attended the rally. The group has gathered more than 6,500 signatures on petitions in just six months. Dan Schramm, the group’s secretary, said many people are to the point where they can’t afford their taxes. He said when they fail to pay, they are cited and put on a payment plan.
“What makes anyone think if they can’t pay their taxes this year, that they will be able to pay for two years under a payment plan?”
Tom Dombroski, chairman of the CAP Taxes board, said senior citizens are most endangered by the property tax obligation.
But Ward said the plan would lock in existing cuts and continue tremendous inequities in school funding across districts.
Ward said Pennsylvania has for too long failed to adequately fund its schools, relying more on local property taxes than most states. She said the commonwealth ranks 47th in the nation in the state share of school funding.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents thousands of state teachers, opposes House Bill 76 and Senate Bill 76 — The Property Tax Independence Act — and has lobbied state legislators to oppose the bills. The PSEA claims the legislation would only serve to lock into place the current funding inequities and massive funding cuts of the past several years. PSEA says the increase in state sales tax would expand to cover basic necessities such as food and clothing.
PSEA does, however, agree that school districts, on average, have been forced to over-rely on property taxes. But PSEA feels the answer is not a complete elimination of the tax.
The Pennsylvania Taxpayers Cyber Coalition, the parent group of the county CAP Taxes, proclaims that HB 76 would “solve all the problems” and ease the “over-reliance” on property taxes.
“We need across-the-board school property tax elimination and spending controls such that all school districts are funded to the level of their need and the public’s ability to pay,” PTCC states.
Ed Kelleher, a former Wyoming Valley West School Board member, supports HB 76.
“Most retired people are on fixed incomes, therefore they cannot afford these taxes,” Kelleher said. “A person that owns a better home pays more of the share. If someone is unemployed, they still have the burden.”
Kelleher has contacted legislators, made phone calls and he has sent out emails to solicit support.
“Now others need to step up,” he said.
Kelleher said he supports teachers and realizes their salaries and benefits are the main costs to school districts.
“I know that teachers’ union is strong, but we have to do something about this,” he said.
Concerns about spending cap
Ward said HB 76 would create a funding gap that would leave Pennsylvania’s students permanently behind. She said it permanently caps education spending increases at a rate much lower than the actual needs of schools and students. Districts will be unable to keep up with pension, technology and energy costs that grow faster than inflation.
She also stated the bill would create an initial funding gap of as much as $2 billion, as the sales and income tax increases would not be sufficient to replace local tax revenue.
The PBPC said total local revenue for public schools in 2013-14 is at least $14.3 billion. Ward said to fully replace these funds would require an increase in the state personal income tax from 3.07 percent to 6.8 percent — taking Pennsylvania from having the lowest income tax rate of states that have personal income taxes to having the highest personal income tax rate on working families in the country.
She also said corporate taxes are not increased in the plan, meaning that corporations would contribute far less — and individuals far more — to the cost of public education in Pennsylvania.