Property tax elimination hearing draws big crowd, but agreement still scarce

By: - August 13, 2019 5:02 pm

The Republican Senate Policy Committee holds a hearing on property tax elimination in York on Tuesday, August 13, 2019 (Capital-Star photo).

YORK, Pa. — To Jim Rodkey, property taxes are serfdom.

“I am here today because I believe the property tax to be the most morally irresponsible, regressive, and unfair system of taxation in existence,” Rodkey, the head of the Pennsylvania Property Rights Association, a nonprofit group opposed to property taxes, said Tuesday.

“Regardless of the strides that have been made in our society in the name of justice and progress, here we are still clinging to a system of taxation that is rooted in European feudal systems.” 

Rodkey was one of a half-dozen advocates and experts who joined a gaggle of Republican lawmakers at Penn State University’s York campus for a hearing on property tax elimination. 

In front of a midday crowd of more than 100 people, the Senate Majority Policy Committee heard fiery pleas for the commonwealth to replace its system of collecting school taxes, as well as some bubbling anger over perceived waste in education spending.

According to an estimate by the Independent Fiscal Office, a nonpartisan state policy analysis agency, Pennsylvania’s school districts are forecasted to collect $15.28 billion in property taxes this fiscal year to help pay for education costs. These locally collected taxes are supplemented with money allocated by the state from its General Fund.

Property owners have long complained that rising property taxes are driving people out of their homes. The problem is especially acute for seniors with fixed incomes. 

Those complaints have made their way to Harrisburg, where lawmakers in both parties have tried to pass legislation to change the whole tax system.

Rodkey made it clear Tuesday that he wants a solution, but he didn’t advocate for anything in particular. 

Luckily for him, a handful of legislators in the state House and Senate have offered their own ideas. Most involve increasing state sales and income taxes, to varying degrees. 

At least one plan also includes adding a tax on retirement income. Right now, seniors don’t have to pay a levy on their pensions in Pennsylvania — one of 10 states where that is the case.

A retirement tax is a key part of a plan floated by Rep. Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon, who is part of a bipartisan, bicameral panel that is ginning up energy for another push this fall. Ryan attended the session. 

But when the idea was mentioned during the hearing, a retirement tax proved unpopular.

“With all due respect Representative Ryan, I cannot vote to tax seniors’ pensions,” Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe, said to cheers from the crowd.

Scavello was a “Yes” vote the last time a vote on property tax elimination took place in the General Assembly — a 24-24 tie in November 2015 that then-Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, a Democrat, broke with a no vote. 

Mark Dodson, a 59-year-old anti-tax activist, drove five hours from his home outside Pittsburgh for the hearing.

Looking at the crowd, he quipped that it “should be thousands” of people at the hearing.

His frustration with property taxes started when he moved to Pennsylvania in 2007 to build a home.

Dodson said after spending thousands on his new house, the local school district slapped him with tax bill for thousands of dollars before he even moved in.

In the 12 years since, Dodson estimated he’s paid $59,000 total in property taxes, or about $4,916 a year.

According to a WalletHub analysis from this February, Pennsylvania has the 12th highest property taxes in the country. It estimated a payment of $2,691 a year on a median-priced home.

Dodson thinks a plan based on sales and income taxes would create a more fair system of paying for school expenses.

“It’s ability to pay by your choice: With your purchases, the trips you take, the services you use,” Dodson told the Capital-Star after the hearing.

But the event wasn’t without skeptics. 

Tim Shrom, director of research for the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, told the elimination-friendly crowd that “many of you will pay more, you’ll just pay it in smaller chunks.”

Shrom also pointed out that property tax elimination means that businesses would pay less, to the tune of $2.75 billion, according to an earlier PASBO estimate.

The take wasn’t popular with the crowd. Shrom was later booed when he questioned Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, on the role that administrative salaries play in districts’ budgets.

But even if a detailed plan to axe property taxes isn’t certain, lawmakers articulated clear stakes. 

Scavello described three stories from his district of residents struggling with climbing rates, including people moving out of their homes. 

He concluded with the tale of a constituent who tried to kill himself after getting a large tax bill. The person survived after a neighbor intervened. 

The Poconos senator said inaction is comparable to Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

“We can’t have too many more of these meetings,” Scavello said while choking up.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.