Op/Ed: Vote No on Tuesday

By Lisa Longo, Member, the Phoenixville School Board

and Nathaniel Smith, Columnist, The Times

We urge voters to vote NO on the ballot question on the back of Tuesday’s ballot.  Why? Well, generally tax reform is a good thing, but in this case, it might not be. So when you hear the word “reform,” it’s time to ask questions… and there are quite a few we need to ask.

The PA constitution says:

“The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”

State government has interpreted this as meaning the state should help local school districts with educational expenses. In recent years the state’s total contribution has sunk from close to the national average of 45% down to 37%. (We’re not talking about pensions, which are a different state-generated boondoggle.)

Now the General Assembly wants to amend the state constitution to allow “local taxing authorities” to eliminate the property tax on homes. What’s up?

Real estate owners pay property tax to their school system, county, and municipality. Obviously, none of those can do without money. Where would the General Assembly like the money to come from? They seem to have a few ideas, none of which permanently replace the loss of taxes that is likely if this ballot question passes.

The Earned Income Tax (usually 1% of wages, and generally split evenly between the schools and the municipality of residence) could be doubled.

Or, the state could start taxing sales of homes. Or contributions to medical and health savings accounts. Or, much more remunerative, for example, they could tax pensions and social security income. Or, they could increase the personal income tax from the current 3.07% to 5% or more. Or legislators could raise the sales tax from 6% to 8%, while making purchases of food and clothes taxable. And the problem here is, this will hurt the working poor and middle class, as both of these are very regressive tax measures.

Think of the economic disruptions in such solutions, the potential harm to those on low or fixed incomes. The plan to move school funding to the state has been supported by anti-tax groups, anti-public school groups, and groups that want to privatize public schools and create for-profit schools. But it has not been endorsed by a single organization that serves workers, students, Veterans, retired taxpayers, or disabled taxpayers.

This becomes a very clear issue of decreasing educational quality and accessibility and moving the tax burden to those who can least afford it.

What we really should be discussing is limiting property taxes to a percentage of household income and reducing the shocking disparities in per-pupil funding between districts. If we are going to talk about a constitutional amendment, let’s have a progressive tax (as we do at the Federal level), which is much more balanced and provides a stable tax base.

There is a reason that no state has eliminated all property tax to fund schools. Surely the last one to do that should be the one that can’t balance its own budget on time, that just saw its bond ratings drop due to that failure, and that is the one major natural gas fracker that won’t pass a severance tax. Yes, that’s our own state of Pennsylvania we are describing.

If the legislators wanted to help school districts, why would they let the state contribution sink and force local communities to make up the difference with the only available method, increasing property taxes?

When the legislature cuts funds to education, it is our children and families that are forced to pay the price.  Who is going to protect our schools? Not the current majority in Harrisburg, for sure. When they see their way to bring the state contribution up to 50%, then let them talk about going higher. And not till then!

So please, on Tuesday, vote no.

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