Now, one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle.
James Otis, February 1761
Arguments Against the Writs Of Assitance
The above quote came from a man that John Adams credited with giving birth to the spirit of Independence in America. Otis was arguing against an edict from the King Of England and Parliament that violated the sanctity of our homes through searches and seizes without due process that, once levied against a property owner, had no time limit. At any time in the future that writ could be used to re-enter the home and pillage it once again.
What Otis is saying here is that a man’s home, no matter how humble, is his castle and as long as he is undisturbed in that home from outside forces (in this case the government) he sees himself as the prince of his castle.
Otis described the Writs of Assistance in this manner:
It appears to me the worst instrument of arbitrary power, the most destructive of English liberty and the fundamental principles of law, that ever was found in an English law-book.
Our founders understood that Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. They understood that never for a moment should government be left to irresponsible action. They also understood that prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
More than 35 years ago some people in Pennsylvania started to become aware of how the property tax in this Commonwealth was transforming itself into a power of force that was threatening home ownership and home values. They may have been few in number but they warned of what would happen if we did not change this system of taxation and their warnings have passed the test of time. Had we corrected the problem back then, we may have been able to save ourselves considerable problems that we face today.
For one thing, without the property tax to fall back on, the pension debacle we face today might not be the problem it is but when your primary goal is asking how to pay for the pension without the property tax, something is amiss.
I have firmly come to believe that the property tax has been the enabler of a great many of the economic problems we face in our Commonwealth. The government at the state level began to see the property tax as a way to reward special interests at the expense of the home owner without the need to raise taxes at the state level. It would then be all the local government and the local school district’s problem. Even now legislators, when constituents complain, want to push it all down to the local schools as though they created all the unfunded mandates that have to be paid for through the property tax.
As the numbers of those concerned about the property tax grew the legislators in Harrisburg sought to do something about the problem; some bold enough to suggest eliminating the system of Property Tax altogether. At each step of the way they were met with special interest opposition who used their power and position to fool legislators and the people of this Commonwealth in accepting targeted relief programs and temporary reduction schemes.
Throughout that time the special interest opposition would admit the frustration the people had with the property tax but they argued economics while avoiding the fact that a growing number of people had been forced into having their homes seized and sold, often for pennies on the dollar, often without any real sense of due process, because they couldn’t keep up with the demands of the property tax the fastest growing of which was the school property tax. Others, at least those who were able, tried to sell their homes but it wasn’t a choice to sell. They were forced into making that decision.
Some saw their properties foreclosed; some faced bankruptcy and some simply packed up the rest of their belongings and abandoned their homes.
Today we see 10,000 a people year facing home seizures, thousands more losing their homes through foreclosures and bankruptcy. It has been reported that there are 350,000 abandoned properties in the state.
There is also the problem with blighted properties where homeowners can no longer afford to invest in the maintenance of their home while keeping up with the demands of the school property tax.
Right now Pennsylvania is closer than it has ever been to actually realizing elimination of the school property tax. SB 76, which would do exactly that, is growing in its public support and spreading across the Commonwealth. At the same time special interest opposition and the legislators who listen more to them than the heart of the people is out peddling the same old arguments of targeted relief and temporary reduction of property taxes.
The same arguments are rolled out about the economic reasons to keep the property tax and frankly, I just don’t buy it anymore. Here’s why:
At the founding of this nation the same arguments were made to prevent a slavery clause from being added to our Declaration of Independence. When our Constitution was being framed the fight to end slavery began again but people more interested in their own economic prosperity than when the rights of people did everything in their power to maintain the status quo.
Think about this. The institution of slavery provided a stability of goods and services to the community. The institution of slavery provided economic benefit to the plantation owners while keeping prices down on the resources from the plantation. In fact, it could probably have been argued that everyone benefited from slavery…except, of course, the slaves.
Once you bring the slaves into the debate, do any of the arguments in support of slavery have any real justification. Is it ever ethical or moral to justify any form of oppression simply because there are those, few or many, who benefit from it? If you say yes, you have no reason to read further.
As I have fought for school property tax elimination the plight of the home owners is always admitted by our opposition with the “but” excuse. We know it’s a problem but…..
From that point on in their defense of the status quo they will talk about anything and everything but the home owner and the thousands whose lives are disrupted and put in turmoil as they decide if they keep their homes or purchase necessary food, clothing and medicine. They ignore the financial turmoil they put families in that often lead to problems of divorce and instability for their families and their children.
They pretend that property taxation on business do not eventually become a part of the goods and services we all need and use. They ignore that for the home owner, the buck stops with them. Theer is no one for the home owner to turn to pass on the financial responsibility and accountability of educating our children.
They look at the problem of property tax as though it was some pulp mystery novel and then think the solution is all the red herrings while ignoring the real crime and criminal: the property tax itself.
The School Property Tax is layered cost with every step of the way in the production and manufacturing, shipping and retailing of every one of the goods we purchase. It adds to the cost of every service we use. A recent article about the property tax on an electric company in New York pointed this problem out clearly
“Without a sea change in how taxes are levied in NYS, the Company will remain a principal tax payer, with the burden growing each year fueled by the need to invest in infrastructure which, in turn, leads to higher and higher energy costs,” Con Ed said in the report.
Looking at home rent increases, according to the census bureau, and comparing that to the Property Tax increases in the Commonwealth we find an interesting parallel.
It might be easy to assume that rising cost in the purchasing of rental properties would be the driving factor but, according to the census bureau, that is not the case. The next chart explains that. Before you look at that chart, notice the sharp drop in Personal Income and Sales tax during the economic recession while property taxes and rent prices kept increasing at a similar rate.
The same drop we saw with income and sales was seen in the sale of vacant homes sold. The asking price in the sale of rental properties has declined sharply but rent keeps increasing and it does so at the same comparative rate as the property tax. Following the drop, the increase follows the growth in income and sales taxes. That’s due, in part, because these things, during a recession, are all influenced by ability to pay. Property Tax is not! Because its not it continued to increase driving up taxes while inflating the cost of rent in the process.
Personally I have to question if, during this same economic downturn, the property tax was not in place if the income and sales tax would have been as drastically impacted. Is it possible that without the property tax the other economic measures would have not dropped as sharply and then would have stabilized much faster?
Without a property tax, jobs may not have been impacted as hard. That would have kept more jobs generating more disposable income which, in turn would have generated more sales tax revenue. Because SB 76 actually creates a reserve fund for just such financial emergencies the revenue in that fund could have been used to get through those difficult economic times.
Isn’t that better for everyone?
These constant increases in our property tax impact the price of the food we eat, including the cost of food when we go out to eat (restaurants pay property tax too). It drives up the cost of the clothing we wear. It even drives up the cost of the medications we purchase (pharmacies aren’t exempt from the property tax) . It’s not just the higher salaries and the cost of making movies that is driving up the expense of taking a family out for a night of entertainment….they are paying a property tax as well.
Actually, in every case, you are paying those property taxes through higher costs for the goods and services provided to you.
While the school district itself does not pay a property tax (and it shouldn’t) everything it uses comes from a business that is paying a property tax. Gas, electricity, the food served in the cafeteria, the electronics and paper used in the classroom. All of this comes from properties that are being taxed.
The disparity in property taxation is often hardest felt in the business community with small family owned businesses. With less product, spreading the cost of the property tax over the product line is not as easy as it is for the larger businesses. While the smaller business may provide better service related to the products we purchase because they specialize, ultimately the large majority of the shoppers shop with their wallet. They’ll go where the prices are lowest. That should make us all question what we are doing to the small business community by making it harder for them to compete with the larger box stores through the property tax. Should we continue to support a system of taxation that actually places controls on competition?
Of course, they already know this is a problem because they’ve developed business related tax incentives like Keystone Opportunity Zones (KOZ’s) and Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance (LERTA’s) but these government programs come at a price to the rest of us. If you remove a business property from the tax roles, even for a short period of time, the revenue from that property has to be passed on to other businesses and homeowners. All to often the community is told that these programs are an investment in our future but once the tax incentives end, so do many of these businesses. They relocate and that investment is lost. It’s not really solving problems, just creating new ones and in the process we all pay more to provide for the new problems being created.
It also only perpetuates a system where the government is picking the winners and losers where the winners benefits at the expense of the losers except that the losers only real participation in that game is to pay for it all.
If the School Property Tax Bill is making everything more expensive, wouldn’t eliminating it make everything less expensive? Wouldn’t shifting away from the property tax, which is not based on ability to pay, to Income and Sales Tax seem a more reasonable way for us to fund education rather than having all these layers costs because of the property tax?
Of course it would, but then that would make us all accountable through our own income and through our own purchases to fund education. Nobody would be able to pass that buck on to their neighbor. It would free the property owner from the slavery of being the sole provider of education funding through the property tax and make it everyone’s responsibility. It would be the ultimate fulfillment of the uniformity clause of the Commonwealth Constitution.
Think about this as well. Every time a property tax assessment is appealed there is a cost involved. The cost to the county, municipality and school district has to be made up and that comes through higher millage rates. Even the county wide assessment comes with a heavy price. That also has to be paid for through property taxes.
Because everything is more expensive and because the property tax, especially the school property tax, keeps increasing the solution from some in government and apparently the majority in the special interest lobbyist effort of doing the same tried and failed tactics of the past including more targeted relief and more government relief programs is a misleading tactic. To provide for that relief we first shrink the base paying the tax by expanding the burden of those still caught in that trap. All that will do is perpetuate the problem and the push for more targeted relief and more government programs and then we wonder why our taxes keep going up. All we are doing is allowing for more people to pass the responsibility and accountability to fund education on to fewer people.
Oddly enough, that was how they tried to end slavery, incrementally and through targeted relief.
Looking back to the time before we had such things as child labor laws children were exploited for profit just as slaves were once exploited for profit. It took a war to end slavery and a series of tragedies to end the exploitation of children in America although the exploitation of children for profit is still a problem in the global market. Today, when such a claim is made of exploiting home ownership for profit through taxation to limit competition, inflate prices, and control the market we are often ridiculed as though such exploitation doesn’t exist and has never existed.
I think back to the arguments made 35 years ago and the arguments that followed in support of eliminating the tax and I wonder. With the driving impact of the property tax over those 35 years would we have been able to turn the economy around? Would we have seen job and income growth? Would we have seen students graduating from college and deciding to remain in Pennsylvania where the investment in their education by the rest of us would have remained in Pennsylvania? Would the economic status of the individuals and their families have been better? I believe the answers to those questions is a resounding yes.
This is a beautiful state with the resources to be a shining star in our nation but the tax climate is hostile robbing us of those resources to fuel a system of taxation that isn’t working. At least not for the people. Instead of generating competition which helps keep prices down, we have a tax climate that s driving competition away and maybe, just maybe, that is the real reason for the lack of support by the business based lobbyists. Maybe they simply do not want to see more competition where a free market controls prices making them more reliant on us and less reliant on the government.
Once the government reaches a point where they have more controls over the product of our labor and industry than we do, we become slaves to a system intended to exploit us. I am reminded of Thomas Jefferson who said “A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and all that is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.” That does not describe what we have seen through property taxation!
Some may say that it is hypocritical to quote Jefferson in an article relating property taxation to slavery since Jefferson owned slaves. I would suggest a careful study into the time and laws before making such a claim. It was unlawful for Jefferson to free his slaves and the dictates of the prevailing economic views of the society in which he lived made it all the more difficult for him to do so. It is never good for society to sacrifice principles on the altar of self-interest!
The system of taxing property to fund education is an abject failure. It makes the home owners and the renters bear the brunt of the burden while driving up the costs of everything they need to survive. That is what makes both the business and the charity opposition arguments against elimination invalid. Like Slavery, you can’t talk about the issue by ignoring those the issue impacts the hardest.
Over the years I have begun to question the validity of the campaign funding lobbyists in the entire political system. They have become a powerful and unelected force that, while claiming to work for the the people, are actually often working for their own self-interest at the expense of the rest of us. In my opinion, they are simply just helping to forge the chains of home owner slavery through government programs that claim to offer relief but aren’t. It is why I get so frustrated with the local control argument. One you dig in to the whole local control issue you find that local control really means controlling the locals, not empowering them with controls over their own lives, homes, families and communities.
And yet, politicians will get in bed with these special interest drivers to win their elections and the system is simply perpetuated at the expense of the people. In the end, the only real power these lobbyists have is the power those elected give to them. Unfortunately far too many are willing to bargain for the political advantage of the lobbyist support than to simply stand on principle. Until that changes, I have little hope that the system itself will change.
As far as property tax elimination. The fight goes on and the anger and frustration swells. In the distance the echoes of James Otis’ voice is being heard again as others are realizing the immoral and unethical use of property to fund anything in government. Like the Writs of Assistance, the tax on property is unending always taxing the same property over and over again until more is paid in property taxes that the property itself is worth. It is the only tax that works that way.
Some may even be hearing John Adams as well who declared:
Property is surely a right of mankind as really as liberty…The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If “Thou shalt not covet,” and “Thou shalt not steal,” were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free.
 Declaration Of Independence.