|Why Act 72 Failed|
June 21, 2005
There is much speculation going on in Harrisburg right now about why Act 72 ended in such dismal failure. Only about 1 in 5 of the school districts in Pennsylvania voted to adopt it. Governor Rendell said publicly that it was a mistake to allow school board members to make the decision for their local communities – a comment which some found a little insulting to the more than 4500 dedicated elected men and women around the state who voluntarily give their time in service to their communities, and who probably know the collective needs of their local residents better than anyone else.
Our legislature is divided as to what to try next. Republicans and Democrats are taking separate positions as to what to do, and when to do it. However, knowing that the public still demands a workable solution to the high property tax problem, many on both sides of the isle are quick to shift the blame for high taxes back to local school boards, whom they say cannot be trusted to control their budgets. They say Act 72 failed because school board members were unwilling to yield their “power” to voter referendums.
Unfortunately, they are missing the point. Even more unfortunate, is the fact that we will never have legislation that will bring meaningful property tax relief until State Government stops shifting blame away from themselves and looks at the real reasons why Act 72 failed. Quite understandably, our elected officials in Harrisburg are used to dealing with problems from a political perspective. Sure they like to pass laws that are beneficial to the folks back home, but there is also a political side to every issue they face that often takes precedence in the outcome. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. For state and federal government, political compromise is a necessity that is built into the system by design. But it does tend to slow progress when dealing with issues that may be politically sensitive, like taxes.
Local school board members, on the other hand, are a “different breed” of elected officials. They cross-file for elections, they are not paid, and they tend not to be “political” by nature. Therefore, most have very little concern for the political consequences of their votes on individual issues. They simply do what they think is best for most of the people in their own local community, which are made up of students, parents, senior citizens, homeowners, and business owners, all with different needs and concerns. While trying to address all of those needs is not always easy, school board members do enjoy the opportunity to govern outside the realm of politics, which is a luxury that most elected officials do not have.
School board members also desperately want property tax relief for their home owners. But 80% of the school boards in Pennsylvania decided against Act 72 for two simple reasons: First and foremost, it failed to benefit the majority of their constituents. Under the provisions of this act, there were too few winners and too many losers. Act 72 did offer a small amount of tax relief to senior home owners on fixed incomes. But among the potential “losers” were many wage earners, who would have had to pay more in income tax than they would potentially save; renters who would pay more local income tax and receive nothing back; business owners, many of whom would pay more taxes on their earnings with no property tax relief; and students and parents, who had the potential to loose their opportunity for a quality education if school budgets could not get passed. The second reason is that school board members understood that Act 72 failed to address the root of the problem.
So what do we do now? In order to fix the problem, legislators must realize what the root problem is, and address those issues. High property taxes, by themselves, are not the problem – only the resulting condition. The real problems are that the cost of education is too high, and there is an over reliance on local tax money to pay for it. There are indeed better ways to reduce or eliminate property taxes, guarantee a quality education for every child in Pennsylvania, and reduce the cost of public education all at the same time. The solutions are not difficult to understand, but they are politically difficult to accomplish. Legislators need to do three things: First, they need to eliminate mandates that make the cost of education so high, and pass laws that begin to reduce the cost of education. Secondly, they need to spread the remaining costs among a much wider tax base, generating revenue at the state level, so as to shift the majority of cost away from local sources – especially from home and business property owners. And thirdly, they need to distribute that revenue in a fair and equitable manner that affords adequate educational opportunities to all children. (This last task actually becomes quite easy when the majority of funding is shifted away from local taxes.)
It does not take much imagination to understand why these solutions are politically difficult. Our legislators would face targeted political pressure against them from several different sides. First in line would be the unions - both education unions and unions who represent industries whose goods and services are consumed by education entities. There would be other complaints from a wide variety of special interest groups, from voters who may resist a restructuring of state taxes (even though their local taxes would go down), and from constituents in wealthy communities, who would not want to share their tax dollars to help educate children in less fortunate communities. But if we are to solve the problems of high property taxes, and inequitable education funding, our elected officials in Harrisburg must find the political courage to begin to tackle these difficult solutions.