It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down to write for this blog. A lot has been going on that, in the best interest of working towards the goal of the total elimination of school property taxation, has forced me to take a more stealth approach in reaching this goal.
Eliminating the school property tax is more complicated than most people realize. It’s not just about eliminating this egregious, regressive and unfair system of taxation. It becomes a radical shift in how we fund education.
The current system is failing at many levels. It is not just failing, it is entirely unsustainable. In just 18 to 20 years, according to projections from the Independent Fiscal Office, the property tax burden across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will double. In another 10 years it will triple from the current burden. Wages cannot sustain such dramatic growth and, as a result, the entire educational system is at risk if we continue down this path.
The boastful claim of stability that is used to defend property taxation is falling apart. For decades that stability has created instability in other areas of our economy and now, as we continue down this path, the property tax is becoming less and less stable; even for the tax collector.
It’s always been unstable for many who have to pay this tax. Thousands of homes have fallen victim to sheriff seizures, others have fallen victim to blight and disrepair (especially in our third class cities) and still other have fallen victim to foreclosure and bankruptcy as the growth of the unsustainable property tax have exceeded their ability to pay.
You see, eliminating the school property tax must, by necessity, also become a radical shift in education funding. We have to find an alternate means of replacing $14.5 billion dollars of revenue through a tax shift that is as fair as possible to all concerned. It’s not an easy task and in this age of polarized and divisive politics, it’s even harder.
It’s not impossible, it just very difficult. The overwhelming majority seems to want property taxes eliminated but the arguments against various plans always come down to embracing elimination while expecting everyone else to pay for it. Everyone, that is, except our own special interests.
The education of our children is a state mandated process. It is more than just a mandate though, it’s important. To that extent, it is our responsibility to provide for the funding necessary to support that education. And by “our”, I mean it is everyone’s responsibility. The tax responsibility that is education funding must be equally shared in a way that eliminates an egregious, regressive and unfair tax by replacing it with a system of taxation that better represents all of us.
At the same time, if such a thing is possible, there can’t be a my way or the highway approach to elimination. We must be able to garner the necessary support to make this happen. That doesn’t happen by throwing bombs fueled by divisive, spiteful and ignorant rhetoric. We need solutions that work and solutions that can actually pass through the legislative process.
While almost anything might sound better than what we now have, finding a far more equitable way of getting it done needs to be the goal. At the same time, finding a way with the greatest amount of legislative support from the start would seem to be a strategy that should be considered.
Well, I’m happy to say that all of the above has been considered in the latest incarnation of school property tax elimination. It’s not that we think previous bills were actually bad bills. Far from it and those who know me well, know that I fought hard to try try and make a previous bill work. If there was a chance of seeing them actually move through the process we’d all be right there supporting it but we have enough time invested in this to know that such a scenario is not likely to happen. I can no longer stand in a room and tell people to fight for a bill that has lost, not gained, legislative support.
It’s not the issue itself. The issue of property tax reform remains an important issue to most people in this commonwealth. The issue is down to debates on the best ways to get it done. There were many factors that played into damaging the previous bill’s ability to get across the finish line. Rehashing those factors for the purpose of blame is futile but looking at those factors and learning from them is not.
What if we could learn from those factors and develop another way to get this done?
I’ve been working with representative Frank Ryan to approach elimination from a different direction. In conversations that started two years ago I listened as Frank expressed his concerns about the weight of the school property tax on working families and how that dynamic is harming the entire economy of the state. We gathered statistical information related to out-migration that clearly demonstrates that young working families are the largest percentile of people leaving this state and that they are doing so because the tax climate in Pennsylvania has become so toxic for these families.
Frank’s sentiment mirrored my own but Frank brought some nuances to the discussion that opened up my own thinking about how to best accomplish this worthy goal. Coupled to the shrinking support for a previous elimination legislation, I became more open to looking at alternate ways to accomplish the goal of elimination.
I’ve long been frustrated by individuals who, while providing opinions I respected in other areas, remained so resistant to school property tax elimination. Was it possible to engage these people to look at some of these nuances to provide an alternate path to school property tax elimination that, in the very least, would curb their opposition or at the very best, actually win their support? I’ve learned that the answer to that is a resounding yes!!!
Frank Ryan began to demonstrate other ways that such a thing was possible. Legislators who opposed previous incarnations of school property tax elimination were brought in and they shared their own concerns and added to the shape of a new direction for elimination. He met with interests who also expressed their own concerns and this added to the shape on this new direction. Little by little, piece by piece it was all starting to come together.
The constant pressure to release details was futile because details were changing and the path to making this happen was also evolving. We wanted to see it fleshed out completely with as much input by the many who previously opposed us and to do so in a non-critical manner. Those conversations proved to be invaluable to us and I’m grateful they’ve taken place providing me with more perspectives and a more in-depth understanding of the property tax issue.
Throughout this process working closely with fellow town hall presenter, Ron Boltz, was essential to me. We continued to discuss possibilities and potentials contributing to the dialogue in a constructive fashion. We also reached out for input from others who had worked so hard for elimination, at least those who were still speaking to us, as we began looking for a more viable way of getting this done.
And I watched in these early days as I reached out to shed some light on what was happening to see a handful of individuals firing back with exaggerated claims and personal attacks every time we tried to present a reasonable voice on the issue. It became counter-productive to the purpose so I took the issue underground carefully working stealth-fully with a handful of people to provide insight and thoughts as this process moved forward all while working with Frank as he endeavored inside the legislative process to turn this concept into a workable reality.
Now, I don’t want anything to think that this has been a process of just giving in to the opposition. It hasn’t. We’ve been firm and resolute in our passion to reach elimination in a way that is as fair as possible in providing for the replacement revenue. We started with the understanding that no one individual has all the answers or can possibly understand all the nuances involved in such a process. We have, in my opinion, come to a better solution with more input from others to create a better path for an elimination plan that has the greatest possibility of passing the legislative process.
We’re almost there. A final draft proposal has been presented that will now require a few days of analysis to make sure that every “i” is dotted and every “t” crossed. Once that process is complete, the draft will be signed and it will become a bill for public scrutiny.
I’ve spent the past 10 hours going through the latest draft and with a few more language related changes, I’m fairly certain we are really just about there. If you’ve ever sat down to read a bill of this scope and magnitude, you’ll know that this isn’t an easy process. I don’t speak fluent legalese. I have to read, reread and then read again each section often coupled to legal dictionary to make sure I’m grasping what this really says.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I want this to be right. This time, I want this bill to be “ready for prime time” right out of the starting gate. Those who have been in this struggle for as long as I have will understand what I mean by that.
Once I finish this post, I’m going to try and get some sleep but I’m fairly certain that my head will still be spinning and thoughts of the possibility of total school property tax elimination dances in my head.
I’ll wait to hear from others doing the same but, generally speaking, I’m good with the overall bill, and I really do see this as our best chance at realizing total school property tax elimination. I find that prospect to be very exciting.
I am not naive enough to think that everyone is going to jump on that bandwagon. There will be those “my way or the highway” folks. There will be others who like elimination but only if they don’t have to contribute to the replacement revenue. Then there will be those complaining because that’s all they know how to do; forget about contributing to solutions, just complaining about what others are doing while not doing anything to advance the issue on their own. The most concerning to me are those who simply don’t care that the current system is unsustainable or broken. So long as they benefit from it for right now, that’s enough. The long term doesn’t matter.
It does, however, matter to me. It matters that so many people face loosing their homes. It matters to me that so many people in this Commonwealth are only one life event away from losing their homes. It matters that maintaining the current system is putting the future of a quality education in Pennsylvania at risk and it matters to me that thousands of working families are fleeing Pennsylvania to find a better place to live for themselves and their families. It matters to me that it is becoming harder to attract productive businesses to the Commonwealth without some form of Corporate welfare often paid for by increasing the tax burden of other property owners.
It matters to me that the current system of education funding through property taxation has been proven to be unfair, regressive and cruelly egregious. That the only system in place intended to make the process more fair, the costly county-wide assessments, actually fails at what they intend to accomplish.
It matters to me that our constitutionally protected right of acquiring, possessing and protecting property is constantly trampled on in order to sustain the foul system we call the property tax; that homes can be seized and sold on auctions for pennies on the dollar denying the home-owner with just compensation and treated like a criminal because their taxes have exceeded their ability to pay.
We need more than just a solution, we need a solution that will work and can pass the legislative process. My sense is that we have found that solution and am thrilled to continue to learn of the support we are seeing through the legislative process in getting this done.
I’m looking forward to the official release of the legislation when all of the details of this new plan can be released to the public. Barring any unforeseen obstacles, that should happen in very short order.
So, after almost 7 months of not commenting publicly about property tax elimination with regards to any specific bill, I’m here to say that I’m proud of the work that went into this bill and grateful for the work of others who helped to get us to this point in time.
To my good friend and state representative, Frank Ryan: for me, you’ve breathed new life into the Marine Corps motto that means “always faithful”. You promised to deliver school property tax elimination when you set your course of becoming an elected representative in our General Assembly. I’ve watched you in that tireless battle to get this done and to keep this issue in the forefront. It’s been much more than a promise, but far more of a commitment.
Semper Fi, my friend. Semper Fi!
P.S. I am sending a big shout out to my wife for her endurance throughout this process. She has been my sounding board, my life-line and my toughest critic. This Wednesday will be her birthday and I’m feeling pretty good about where this bill is right now…just in time for her birthday. Happy Birthday, Sue…My light in the darkness and the love of my life.