Property : Debate on property tax reform is constantly on the swirl in Harrisburg

James Murphy has watched in frustration as his school property tax bill has risen year after year.

“It rises $200 or $300 annually,” said Murphy, of Media. “There’s no treatments for it. Together, it is simply spend, spend, spend, spend.”

Murphy is a member of the Rose Tree Media Taxpayers United, a grassroots group that advocates for controlled school spending and property tax reform. The group supports efforts to eliminate school property taxes while raising other state taxes.

“We would like to see … where the taxpayers do not have to pay the property taxes anymore,” Murphy said. “It should be controlled through the state to equally fund all the public schools in Pennsylvania.”

Property tax reform is hardly a new issue, neither is it one lacking suggestions for change. Agreeing on practical solution, however, has troubled the state Legislature for years.

Most reform bills going swimming Harrisburg are iterations of proposals that have been discussed repeatedly. They range from eliminating school property taxes completely to freezing them for seniors. Passage associated with a reform bill isn’t imminent.

“A lot of times, individuals are very reluctant because in almost any sweeping legislation, people aren’t always sure what it is going to work out,” said state Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-162, of Ridley Park. “People are in it sometimes to take a step. But big steps would be the only things that are likely to solve this problem. I believe it’s been going on for so long that there are no other ways than making big moves.”

Miccarelli was among three Delaware County representatives who voted this past year in support of an offer to eliminate school property taxes. The plan sought to make in the revenue by enhancing the state income and purchasers taxes.

It faced heavy bipartisan opposition from House members who claimed the numbers did not accumulate. Once the plan appeared last fall as an amendment to another bill, it failed with a 138-59 vote.

Miccarelli was accompanied by state Reps. Stephen Barrar, R-160, of Upper Chichester, and Margo Davidson, D-164, of Upper Darby, in supporting the balance.

“It was a bold bill that showed there have been legislators willing to put a tough vote to get something done about this issue,” Barrar said. “Property taxes have been probably the most elusive goal of the Legislature for the past 30 or 4 decades.”

State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-166, of Haverford, said eliminating school property taxes might be popular, but is most likely unrealistic. He worried that eliminating property taxes may affect the caliber of education offered by school districts in his legislative district.

“I would be cautious about any proposal that really endangers the ability of these school districts to maintain their high standards,” Vitali said. “People make choices on where to live based on the amenities that a community provides. … I’m very wary of plans that will run all the money through the state and send it in perhaps a different way.”

The House instead dicated to pass House Bill 1189, better known because the “local option” bill. The bill enables school districts to enact earned income, mercantile and business privilege taxes for that sole reason for lowering the district’s millage rate on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

That bill, which passed by a 149-46 vote, has joined several property tax reform bills that already are sitting within the Senate Finance Committee. The others include a pair of bills trying to freeze property taxes for seniors and Senate Bill 76, the Senate’s version of the college property tax elimination legislation.

State Sen. Mike Brubaker, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the majority of interest has centered on SB 76 and the legislation freezing property taxes. Yet, each one of the bills need work before they may be voted out of committee.

The challenge in passing property tax reform, Brubaker said, is ensuring legislators are comfortable with the revenue figures involved. Property taxes are more stable than the state sales and income taxes.

“We’re leaving in the stable and predictable form and going to more variable forms,” said Brubaker, R-36, of Lancaster County. “It potentially puts the funding of critical government investments, like education, inside a bit of a predicament when we don’t have reserves. … We must ensure that the revenues necessary to operate will be there.”

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-9, of Chester, said it comes with an increasing realization that eliminating property taxes does not eliminate the tax burden. Instead, tax reform shifts the responsibility in one person to a different. Some benefit while others feel a heavier burden.

“The people who are harmed by that (shift) resist that change,” Pileggi said. “The people who benefit by that shift advocate for that change. This is the tension occurring many times when you discuss reform.”

Pileggi has sponsored Senate Bill 299, which would freeze school property taxes for residents who’re at least 65 years of age and have qualified for a Homestead exemption for at least five years. The bill would not reimburse school districts for that revenue lost. A resource for your reimbursement funding is needed to move the bill forward.

State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, D-159, of Chester, said he’d support such a bill if one made its way to the home. He suggested the reimbursement funding be generated by taxing Marcellus Shale – an income policy advocated by many Democrats. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has opposed new taxes on Marcellus Shale.

“That would be something I’d be more than prepared to support,” said Kirkland, who voted against both school property tax elimination proposal and also the local option bill. “We have to find wherein we can look after our seniors and keep our schools.”

Kirkland said legislators need to be honest and realistic if reform will probably be passed.

“It’s been a problem which has been ongoing,” Kirkland said. “It’s been an issue that we have to address using the appropriate deals and also the right leadership.”