When you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s easy to forget that the initial objective was to drain the swamp.
For the past five years School Property Tax Elimination has been a centerpiece to my state political thinking. It has become the thing I have focused on and right now I have a small library and spent a lot of money printing tax codes, policy and countless articles and related items to the property tax. In that process I’ve done extensive research and the truth is that the more I learn the more I despise taxing homes to fund any government at any level. .
This morning I participated, along with Ron Boltz, in a meeting with opponents of School Property Tax Elimination. The goal of the meeting was to see if there is anyway to bring the opponents to the legislation on board. The question was essentially asked, “What can we do to this bill that could win your support?”.
I wish I could make sense out of the responses but honestly, I can’t. The reason for that is simple. The opposition doesn’t really want to talk about the problems with the property tax. Without dealing with the problem you can’t find a solution. They seem to want to talk about anything except what it’s doing to people around our Commonwealth.
There was also all of this doublespeak. There were times during this meeting that I felt like Winston Smith sitting in Airstrip One of Oceania living out George Orwell’s 1984.
First we heard that the relief programs aren’t working. Then we heard that what we need is, not elimination, but more targeted relief. But wait, they just said that the relief programs aren’t working so how can more relief programs be the solution. Ignore the contradiction. It is not supposed to make sense. It is merely meant to distract us; to cause confusion!
Then we heard about the plight of the seniors but the solution is to tax the retirement income of seniors.
We heard that it’s an education funding problem because we spend too much but we also aren’t sending enough funding to the schools.
And so it went.
How do you even debate individuals who are on both sides of the issue? It’s like arguing with a schizophrenic where you never really know which personality you are talking to.
The only real substantive thing to come out of this meeting was the veiled admission that the sentiment in the room is that when it comes to education funding it’s okay to tax thee so long as you don’t tax me.
They all admit that there are problems with the property tax but the fixes are almost laughable. We should have more reassessments was one solution. But the false context of that is exposed if you go anywhere where the county-wide reassessments have been held and ask the people if they think their reassessment was fair. There’s also the issue with the cost. How do you reduce property taxes by adding an additional $5 to $10 million dollars to the local budget every three years? That’s not going to lower property taxes. It will only increase them and it’s done by a system that has been proven, through the thousands of successful appeals, to not work.
Of course lawyers and appraisal companies aren’t going to benefit if we eliminate the need for these regular assessments by eliminating property taxes but that’s a different story.
The Bar association brought up the problems with taxing legal services for things like preparing wills. Simple question here but let’s assume that preparing your will requires $1,000 in legal fees. A 7% sales tax on $1000 is an additional $70 dollars. How often are you actually going to prepare your will? Isn’t that extra $70 bucks worth saving $2000 or more each year in property taxes. But we’re supposed to ignore that. We’re just supposed to think about the 7% tax on legal services and forget that we are paying far more than that annually just to get the school boards permission to stay in our homes. That is, after all, what we are doing….paying them to allow us to stay in our homes sort of like businesses used to pay people like Al Capone insurance money so their business wouldn’t have an “accident”. When the mob did that we called it what it was…..extortion. When School Districts do it we call it taxation!
And understand I’m not really beating up on the School Districts. This is the system given to them by our legislators. The unfunded mandates tie one hand, the PSEA and the Department of Education tie the other but the ones feeling the blunt of the blows that follow are me and you!
We made the argument that the School Property Tax is not based on ability to pay. We made the case while also demonstrating just how regressive the School Property tax is. The response…..Ignore that, they don’t want to talk about that because that’s about the property tax itself and it exposes the flaws of using our homes to provide for wages, benefits and pensions many of those homeowners could never provide for themselves.
The retailers association brought up the Independence Fiscal Office report and spoke in some generalities so we had the excerpts from the IFO report and when Ron began to read from them the retailers association lobbyist interrupted saying he read them to which Ron Boltz replied….”Good, then let’s read it together!” Probably my favorite quote from the entire meeting.
Ron read the facts, cited the pages and you would think that would have ended that discussion but it didn’t. It was just more talking in circles that choose to ignore what the report actually said.
The meeting included listing a litany of issues that they felt needed to be addressed first, some of which have little to nothing to do with our bill. In the meantime thousands of people are getting government issued eviction notices from their homes.
We heard that we shouldn’t tax food….any food whatsoever apparently. While making this statement the fact that we are taxing food by taxing the farmer’s land, taxing the food processing plants, taxing he companies that move those goods from one facility to another and then finally taxing the property of the retailer who sells that food and in doing so WE ARE TAXING FOOD! Somehow that’s okay, perhaps because we can’t literally see those taxes. We just pay them as a hidden component of the overall price of that food. You are doing that with your clothing and you are doing that with your medications. You are also doing that with every goods and services you purchase but let’s just ignore that inconvenient truth! After all, that deals specifically with the property tax and even though that is what this bill addresses, our opponents don’t seem to want to!
The same logic was applied when we heard that renters won’t benefit from the elimination of the school property tax as though somehow the landlord just pays those taxes and doesn’t consider that in the determination of the rent applied. If you are representing businesses and don’t understand that the rising rent is directly impacted by rising property taxes maybe you are in the wrong field of work!
We pointed out that when it comes to the homeowner the buck stops with us. That there’s no way for us to pass the cost of that tax on to anyone else even though businesses can and must do so if they want to stay in business. In the end, we are paying their property tax too. This was refuted by stating that business sometimes can’t do this.
There is no sometimes with you and me. We can never pass that cost of the property tax on to somebody else and let’s be fair here; A business that’s constantly going to be unable to pass their taxation costs on to the consumer isn’t going to be in business long unless they are being subsidized by the government. That money for that subsidy however is still being paid for through taxes on the rest of us.
The voices most predominant in the opposition came from The Pa. Chamber of Business and Industry, National Federation of Independent Business and the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. Like I said, I still can’t wrap my head around their opposition because, especially when it came from the Chamber of Business there was this sense of double-speak where one statement would simply contradict a statement previously made.
Are we spending too much in education or aren’t we spending enough? Are Seniors paying too much or aren’t they paying their fair share? If relief doesn’t work, why is it the solution?
How do you even debate the contradictions?
Another point that deeply disturbed me is that our Constitution demands a uniform system of taxation. After repeatedly being told we need to target relief to specific groups of people I reminded them that the Constitution forbids this but that simply didn’t seem to matter. They would ignore that and keep going back to the targeted relief schemes. They would do anything except Eliminate and it really doesn’t seem to matter how much it would cost the rest of us.
You can’t keep shrinking the base and call that a solution to the Property Tax debacle. All we are doing is making it worse for those still getting plundered. What is their solution then….more relief to shrink the base even more. That’s not a solution, that is a problem creator that only succeeds in growing the bureaucracies that are already impossible to sustain.
It reminds me of the grievance in our Declaration of Independence where Jefferson said “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.”
The property tax system is broken. It can’t be fixed. It can’t be made fair and it will never be based on ability to pay. It’s time we admit that and then kill the beast that school property tax has become. It has become a cancer that is destroying other economic drivers like family sustaining jobs. That cancer will not stop until it robs you of your equity, deflates the market value of your home and eventually devours the homes we live in.
At the end of the day, even though the property tax to fund education can’t be defended; even though the system is inherently unfair with some paying as little as 1% of their income to fund education and others paying 10% and more, the opposition is there to make sure the status quo is protected.
Rather than shifting to a system based on ability to pay they want to make sure that, come hell or high water for the rest us, the current system stays in place.
I started this posting with the modern proverb of draining a swamp. We certainly expected to encounter alligators in the draining of this swamp but having them standing there constantly throwing more alligators into the water to keep us from focusing on the goal is futile. Distract and then distract some more seems to be their theme coupled with “Tax Thee but don’t tax Me!. Make a point and then counter that by making the opposite point leading to confusion and the improbability of maintaining meaningful discourse.
The fight for school property tax elimination is more than 35 years old. The obstacle in the way has always been these organizations who argue for incremental or targeted relief that has never worked and it never will work. They persuade our legislators that they must compromise with total elimination and we get temporary relief that is soon devoured by rising property taxes.
For the first time in that long period of time we are actually very close to making it happen and so we can expect the double-speak and the rhetoric to ramp up because they obviously don’t want to see you secure in your home. They don’t want a fair tax based on ability to pay where we all contribute to the education of our children. After all, if we actually got around to really fixing some of these problems maybe we wouldn’t need so many special interest paid lobbyists who aren’t exactly transparent in their dealings with our legislators cluttering up the halls of government.
We’re angry and these groups are not really picking up on that anger. As I’ve been around this state and as more places face the county wide reassessments the anger only grows and the passion to see this done grows even more. I feel like many of these people are out of touch with the reality most of deal with day after day in facing stagnant wages, rising costs and gouging taxation. When push comes to shove and the money is no longer there we’re the ones getting knocked down so if this commentary on today’s meeting sounds like I’m angry, it should. I am angry and I’m getting angrier with each town hall I attend, with every person I speak to, with every new nightmare that is shared with me from others facing losing their homes. Yes! It’s personal!
Every time those voices are muted by the distractions and deflections; every time those voices are made to sound as though they don’t matter; it’s harder for me to sleep at night without seeing their faces and hearing those stories once again.
We heard a lot of support for wealth redistribution today and frankly I’m am surprised by some of those advocating for it. Even worse to me is this notion of allowing the government, through selective picking, to determine winners and losers through targeted relief schemes that would violate the clear intentions of the uniformity clause of our Commonwealth Constitution.
When those advocating for these things come from people who had earned my respect in other areas and issues, it is painful for me. I take no pleasure in calling these things out but I cannot remain silent in the face of the injustice of the property tax. As Benjamin Franklin said “As we must account for every idle word, so must we account for every idle silence.”
Speaking of quotes, it is interesting to note that after we left the Capitol Building today my wife pointed out an engraving to our left as we were leaving. It said “Do the right thing and let the consequences up to infinite wisdom!” Sadly it would seem this thinking, important enough to be engraved in stone outside the Capitol, is no longer relevant for many. But, fortunately for us, not all…there does seem to be a few who understand the relevance.
Thank goodness for Senators like Dave Argall, Andy Dinniman, Mike Folmer, Judy Schwank and Mario Scavello who were there today and solidly had our backs. They truly rose up and stood out today for the forgotten taxpayers in this Commonwealth
I look at what happened today and I was reminded of the debate of the medical cannabis bill where a legislator stood on the floor and kept citing that the American Medical Association opposed it. One just naturally assumes that this means the medical profession opposed it as well….it turned out that 70% of practicing physicians, those doctors who actually work with patients each and every day of their life, supported it. So who do these special interest lobbyists really represent?
Today I had it solidly confirmed that when it comes to School Property Tax it’s not you and it’s not me. It’s not the real consumer base. No, not at all. For them what I heard today was simply to repeat the mantra “Taxes for Thee and Not For Me!”
There is but one objective: School Property Tax Elimination…..Damn their Alligators and full speed ahead!
Note: with all due respect the title of this blog comes from a fellow wordpress blogger (Randy Garbin) who reposted a previous posting of mine and retitled it. It was such a perfect retitling that I am using it here.