Where do we go from here?

Since the Finance Committee vote on Senate Bill 76 our opposition has ramped up their efforts to try and stop any future progress on this important piece of legislation.  While this has happened I’ve been getting phone calls and emails suggesting that all is lost because the legislation may not make it through the Senate and House by the end of this year.

From the beginning we have told everyone that we are in for the legislative fight of our life.  While the focus from the public has generally been solely on the elimination of the school property tax, the other part of this struggle has largely been ignored.  This is an education finance reform bill.  That shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us.  In David Baldinger’s presentation he has explained over and over again that Property Tax alone wasn’t the problem.  David’s presentation always began by explaining the premise that its the way we finance education is the problem.

The School Property Tax issue is only one of the means by which education is funded in the state.  The current 6% sales tax collected by the state also goes to education funding as does local EIT taxes.  There’s also Federal grant money.  That 6% sales tax is filtered out to the school district based on a seriously flawed funding formula that needs to be repaired but the legislators have known this and have done nothing, much like the problems created by the pension expansions.  It’s not likely they’ll do anything with the flawed funding formula or the pension problem until they have to.  After all, one of the arguments against HB 76 (the House version of the bill) was raising the question of how the pensions would be paid for if they eliminated the school property tax.

Trying to fix all the problems in Harrisburg through one piece of legislation is ridiculous and we knew that.  We focused on the education finance reform through the School Property Tax.  The other aspects of education finance reform are battles for other bills on another day.  Let’s not, however, overlook the fact that Senate Bill 76 goes a long way towards making those other bills and other debates happen.  That’s part of the problem in this struggle to get this bill passed.  Our legislators know what happens when this passes….they will have to fix the problems that they created.

We often hear about the battle for School Property Tax going on for the past 30 years.  That’s true.  The battle for SB 76 is shorter.  In this unique version of Property Tax Elimination, this fight has been going on for about 3 years.  Both The Senate and the House Bill had to be reintroduced back at a time when we only had a handful of sponsors in the House and the Senate.  Some of our opposition still resorts to previous versions of property tax elimination while trying to pretend that SB 76 is one of those previous bills.  It’s not, it never was.

SB 76 is a responsible education funding finance reform bill that looked at the problem and the obstacles in the solution to that problem to draft a bill the attempts to find a fair and equitable system of funding that protects the interests of the school districts while protecting the interests of the property owners.  It is a balanced bill that also sought to protect the interests of the business community as well, especially the small business community which remains the second largest employers in the state.  It is a bill that recognizes the legislative responsibility under the Commonwealth Constitution to provide for a thorough and efficient system of education while preserving other portions of our Commonwealth Constitution in the Protection of property and in the preservation of the uniformity clause.

chart 1The existing system is unsustainable.  The IFO report on this legislation proved that beyond any shadow of a doubt as evidenced by the above graph.  Since 2001 the Property Tax burden has continued to increase greater than Personal Income.  In 2008/09 when Income was hit very hard, the school property tax continued to increase.  We also know that with the coming underfunded Pension problem it’s only going to get worse.  We need a responsible solution to this problem.  Not some hackneyed plan that is only going to create more problems like pension reform or the ridiculous education funding formula from 1991.  We need a plan that explains exactly how the replacement revenue from the School Property Tax will be enacted…a plan that continues to protect the interests of the people, the school districts and the business community…a plan that places a uniform responsibility on everyone in the participation of funding for our public school system.  There is only one bill that does this…SB 76.

As the bill made its way through the Senate Finance Committee, it crossed a major hurdle.  For the first time since the bills were introduced (HB and SB 76) this Committee decided that this bill deserved the full discussion of an entire Body and moved the bill forward.

During that time we have always stated that the real battle for this legislation is going to have to take place from the grassroots efforts.  We went so far as to say that you have to treat these bills as though it is a candidate that you want to see get elected.  That’s why David and others worked at promoting the Town hall approach to getting the word out on these bills and those town halls have always been effective in bringing on more supporters.  It was going to take more than internalizing the issues within the grassroots coalitions, you had to reach out beyond the supporting citizen members.  Some of the groups realized this very early and in the past few months that message has really begun to resonate.

We also stressed the need for word of mouth communication: Family, Friends and neighbors-telling anyone who will listen.  We’ve seen that ramp up in the last few months as well.  Yet one more aspect was grassroot candidacy for the issue.   Two years ago, this legislation was just a part of a platform,  during this election cycle it is becoming a centerpiece across the state. even to the point of candidates getting in this race because of their passion to see this move forward.  And it has worked.

The Senate Finance Committee vote gave us statewide press on this issue for the first time.  Think about this, when you consider the number of bills that go through the legislative body in a years time…how many of those bills get actual press coverage.  Most people are completely unaware of what is happening with bills in Harrisburg but we have more people in this state that not only know about the bill, they know the bill number.  And yes, I know that there are still a lot of people who don’t know.  We are changing that though.

Let’s assume that the bills do not pass this session.  Let’s assume that these bills have to be reintroduced next year.  Do we quit the race because we haven’t got to the finish line yet or do we think this issue is important enough to take the momentum we have seen and ride that wave to its inevitable conclusion?

I know the answer to that question from the large percentage of our supporters but for those newer to this fight , now is not the time to lose heart.

Our opposition has tried to spin the slow process of this bill while asking us to ignore the monumental reform this legislation brings.  Our opposition has taken every step forward and tried to make that forward step look like one more failure.  Our opposition has tried to convince others there is no plan in spite of the evidence of the forward efforts of this legislation showing that there is a plan…one that is flexible enough to adapt to what needs to be done based on what is happening while staying focused on the ultimate goal.

We’ve had more than our share of obstacles thrown in our way.   Each time this has happened we’ve seen that core group of supporters rally together to overcome that obstacle and keep moving this issue forward.  The spirit of unity behind the common cause has kept us alive when it could have killed this effort a long time ago.  Sometimes we have seen individuals more interested in self-promotion than issue promotion get out there and do damage to the effort as they ran off like loose cannons but that core group of support mobilized and ran successful damage control efforts.  Again, it made the task more difficult than it needs to be; it became one more obstacle but the core group of supporters would not let it defeat them or their efforts to get this done.

As I write this we are still seeing this sort of activity.  Individuals who are promoting their own agendas while trying to divide the united front to get this through the legislative body.  Within the core framework we know the truth about what has been done and what is being done to get this across the finish line but there are others who don’t.  This divisive faction wants to generate a mistrust of those who are leading on this issue and so they focus on attacking anyone who is perceived as leading on this issue.  This divisive faction spreads the myth of naivety or outright incompetence but when it comes from individuals who claim to support the effort, you have to wonder who they are trying to kid.

We have every reason to feel frustrated at the amount of time its taken to get this far but don’t let the detractors fool you into ignoring what we have accomplished.  It’s all part of a process of bringing real, responsible and beneficial reform to this state.

We have gone from 13 Senate co-sponsors to 26.  No one single effort accomplished that.  It was the combined efforts of a lot of people including some legislators who are constantly being attacked for allegedly not doing enough because some individuals have personal vendetta’s against those legislators.  As the bill advances in the Senate, House members are going to be looking into this legislation once again.  We have a chance to make sure that our vote in November matters on advancing this issue in the house.  We don’t need candidates who waffle on SB 76 feigning support while attacking everything that’s been done to advance it..  If they aren’t recognizing and supporting the grassroots efforts, they aren’t supporting the legislation no matter what they tell you.

The effort of getting a majority of co-sponsors in the Senate happened because of the town halls, letters, phone calls, emails, rallies, petitions, door-to-door efforts, direct mail campaigns, signs, T-Shirts, Letters To The Editor, Newspaper Articles in support, Legislative efforts, the work of the amendment process, PAR…and the list goes on.  In other words it happened because of the people who worked to make this happen.  By that I don’t simply men people whose names have become synonymous with School Property Tax Independence…I mean all of the supporters working together in a united front to make it happen.

We’ve done this with major opposition by major players in this state like the PSEA who has done everything in their power to spread lies and misinformation about this legislation.  The efforts of the PSEA is advanced every time we allow another person who claims to be a supporter further perpetuate those lies in their attacks of what has been accomplished and what is being advanced as we speak.

Real reform is more than just tapping into anger and then exploiting that anger for whatever motivations; personal promotion or otherwise. Real reform is about working for responsible and principled legislation. Its about building coalitions’ of support based on sound moral and fiscal policy. Real Reform will require the input of the people in this type of legislation and will require their active participation as unpaid citizen lobbyists who fight for the principles because they understand the importance of those principles.

Real Reform will come about through incremental changes that may not give all of us everything we want in one clean sweep but starts moving us in a direction that will make other reforms possible, some of those reforms are necessary if Pennsylvania wants to see itself as being once again in the top half of performing states instead of in the bottom half where we constantly find ourself.

Sometimes those incremental steps are big steps, like it is with SB 76.  Sometimes those steps will be smaller.  The important thing to remember is that no matter how difficult the struggle, the struggle must continue until victory is realized.  The battle for complete property tax independence doesn’t end with SB 76 but it is a major step in that battle and pardon me if I boast a little about this legislation.

This is the best darned piece of legislation in bringing real legislative reform to this state through the elimination of one aspect of an archaic and broken system of taxation and replacing it with a fair and equitable system of taxation that I have ever seen.  By shifting education funding from the mythology of estimated property worth determined by how much they need, we’ll see a system of taxation based on income and spending capabilities applied to each individual  uniformly exactly the way the our Commonwealth Constitution says it should be.   By capping future spending to economic growth we’ll see a more efficient system of education.  For all their excuses, there is no reason that so many of our public schools under perform home schooling students or students in alternative education programs even though the spending in those alternative schools is often much lower per student than our public school system.  By including no-exemption voter referendums for any local special projects we restore real local control to the people in the school districts.  A bad decision made by a local school board is a decision that still has to be paid for long after voters can decide to remove that school board from office.  Since we are the ones who will ultimately have to pay for it, shouldn’t we be the ones deciding.

If I have to continue this fight next year…so be it.  We’ve come too far in the battle for School Property Tax independence to end it now.  With Cornwallis and Yorktown on the horizon, do we really just want to go back to Boston and pretend that it all wasn’t worth it?

Like I sated earlier, we have a right to be frustrated…a right to be angry,  We have to channel that anger in the right direction and seek out positive results but continuing to do what we know has worked while targeting areas of the state where it needs to happen.  That’s already happening so we’re on the right path!  Let’s continue this struggle and when the naysayers and detractors come out, let’s spank them soundly with the facts and then send them on their way.

Never forget what we have accomplished…that history is important.  When someone comes along and pretends that those things didn’t happen to try and divide us to stop us from doing what has worked…why should we give them credence by allowing them to make these statements unchallenged.

Stand up and be proud of what you have accomplished in this fight. Now let’s go out there and responsibly do what it takes to get this across the finish line.

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