A taxing situation
Generations of Pennsylvania lawmakers have failed to reform the commonwealth's destructive over-reliance on local property taxes to fund education.
Politically, the reason is simple. Leaving so much of the burden at the local level means it isn't a problem for the lawmakers themselves. They can reap the political credit for the holding the line or cutting state-level taxes, and then blame local school boards that have no choice but to pass local tax increases.
That pattern causes substantial collateral damage. It perpetuates vast disparities in education funding among poor, mostly urban and rural districts, and affluent suburban districts.
For lawmakers, the political risk of perpetuating high local property taxes is the fallout from many older property owners, regular voters, who struggle to meet rising property taxes with limited incomes.
Some lawmakers have begun to talk about eliminating the local property tax, but in a way that will only serve their own political problem. A new bill proposed by Republican Rep. Seth Grove of York would provide only an option for local districts to replace or reduce local property taxes. But it would leave most of the tax burden at the local level, transferring it to higher local wage and business taxes. That would relieve a key constituency for lawmakers - older voters - of the property tax burden, but spare lawmakers of having to make the tough decisions on how to replace the revenue.
There are several fundamental problems with local property taxation and public schools. One is that there are too many school districts - 500. That guarantees heavily fragmented local property tax bases and ensures vast disparities in school funding.
The only way to make property tax reform meaningful and uniform is to make it a part of overall education reform. That means fewer, stronger school districts. And, it means replacing local property tax revenue with revenue derived from the largest tax base - that covering the entire commonwealth.
Any property tax reform that does not ensure adequate state funding will be a sham.