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Anti-Property Tax Sentiment in PA Remains Passionate, Diffuse

Calls to eliminate school property taxes in Pennsylvania stretch back decades, but the latest effort is moving at cross-purposes with other bills.

More than 100 people rallied on the steps of the state Capitol Tuesday in support of a plan to eliminate school property taxes in Pennsylvania once and for all.

The plan, sponsored by Rep. Jim Cox (R-Berks) would replace the levy controlled by school districts with higher rates of the personal income tax and the sales and use tax (the sales tax would also be broadened to apply to more items).

It's a rewrite of a bill Cox introduced last year. The state's Independent Fiscal Office studied last year's proposal and advised changes after finding it wouldn't replace property tax revenue with enough funding from other tax increases.

"I'm not ignorant enough to think that I should introduce the identical bill without addressing the concerns the IFO raised," Cox said.

In the new bill, he proposes a larger personal income tax rate hike.

"That's just one change to address the revenue shortfall identified by IFO," Cox said.

But this year, competing proposals addressing the property tax issue have the the support of the House Majority Leader. They passed out of a House committee Monday. The bills would give school districts the option of replacing property taxes with a menu of other levies.

Cox said that's too much wiggle room.

"Everybody says, let the locals have more control or more funding options," he said. "I think they've shown themselves to be irresponsible with one tax, why do we want to give them others? And that's what those other pieces of legislation do."

Cox's own latest bill is still awaiting a follow-up analysis from the IFO. He said he expected a report by early September; an official with the IFO said an analysis would be released "soon." In the meantime, Cox says the Department of Revenue has already sized up his revised plan and found it would generate more than enough money for school districts.

Some don't agree.

Sharon Ward, with the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, opposes efforts to eliminate the property tax, arguing that it incorrectly regards rapidly rising property taxes as the fault of school districts, when the indirect cause is that they are receiving less money from the state.

She warns that replacing the property tax with other levies could "lock in" low state funding levels for education.

Backers say they're committed to advancing a proposal this session, though they acknowledge the fight has been going for some 30 years.

At the rally, supporters of the Cox proposal wore shirts emblazoned with the bill's number (76).

James Rodkey, of Lebanon County, stirred the crowd on the Capitol steps with a familiar criticism of the school property taxes steadily on the rise.

"We have something to say, and that is that no tax should have the power to leave you homeless," Rodkey said. "Can I hear that?"

The crowd cheered. Someone whistled. A man shouted back, "Right on! Right on!"

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