What would have made this referendum far more attractive would have been a provision stipulating that for a period of five years, schools and municipalities could only add that new income tax to the degree they reduced property taxes.
What would have made it incalculably more welcome would have been a restructuring of the state aid to education package. The local school tax is by far the biggest bite from the property-owner's pocketbook, and it is the area where the state could - and should - alleviate the pain.
It was trite 20 years ago to complain that since the state mandates all those higher costs, they ought to pay the freight. But since that time, the state has not only trimmed its aid to local districts, but kept on forcing higher and higher costs.
If we're talking reform, not politics, reform would begin at the school house, and it would focus fiercely on the formula by which the state reimburses our schools.
Alas, a rewrite of the referendum package is not in the cards. Consequently, the voter is stuck with an either/or vote. And what we will be voting on is a package that does not even do what its proponents will brag about - eliminate the nuisance taxes. They're in there, in different form.
Not only that, but you get the distinct possibility of higher taxes, and the creation of a far more lucrative way of milking the local taxpayer. Some choice.
A VOTE 'YES' FOR TAX RELIEF
Opponents of the local tax reform referendum are busy with a parade of horribles about the issue. But suppose they succeed in confusing enough people so that the constitutional amendment fails. What then?
First, people across the state can forget about obtaining any significant relief on their property taxes for a long time to come, if ever. Voting yes on May 16 will make possible - depending on your locality - a minimum cut of 25 percent in your property tax bill. Pennsylvanians have said for years they wanted relief from the tax burden on their homes; what folly to pass up this opportunity.
Second, contrary to what opponents intimate, voting no is no guarantee that your taxes won't go up. In truth, voting yes or no isn't the key there. If the needs in your school district, for example, are increasing, your tax inevitably will go up as time goes on.
Third, voting yes would abolish a host of nuisance taxes on persons and businesses, such as personal property taxes, per capita taxes, occupation assessment and occupational privilege taxes. Obviously, those won't go away if citizens heed the cries of doomsayers and turn down the May 16 amendment.
True, the tax reform proposal is complicated, just as is the present unfair, out-of-joint system. True, some people will have to pay more taxes, but most will pay less. But it is simply not true that voting no somehow will guarantee no increase in anyone's total local tax bill.
Finally, the only hope for significantly cutting the tax bill on your residence is a yes vote. If Pennsylvanians focus on these essential facts, a badly needed and fair tax reform will become a reality after the referendum vote is counted.
RETIREES WON'T BE HURT BY TAX
The very mention of a local tax on profits from investments - so-called unearned income - has raised the hackles of more prosperous Pennsylvanians, and the Old Guard of the Republican Party in particular. In raising objections, however, they have distorted the facts to make it appear that Gov.
Casey, the chief proponent of tax reform, wants to impose new taxes on retired folks struggling to make ends meet.
Just the opposite is true. Retired folks who own their own homes would get a break both ways - a reduction in their property taxes and exemptions from new taxes on income for those who already qualify for benefits under programs financed by the state lottery.
Fat cats who don't want to pay their fair share of local taxes have deliberately made it appear that all retired folks would be zapped under the tax reform measure. Not true.
Only retirees who enjoy substantial incomes would feel a tax pinch and that pinch is overdue because, like other wealthier citizens, they have been pampered by the local tax system all these years. No wonder they oppose any changes.
DON'T VOTE FOR A BAD IDEA
To be blunt about it, (Gov.) Casey's backside is hanging out on this referendum.
And, because the package contains so many contingencies, we should kick him in it.
For example, under "tax reform" we're supposed to be getting real estate tax relief, but this relief is contingent upon school boards (which impose the largest amount of real estate taxes) having flexibility to encompass relief within the framework of their budgets - and, at that, there is a pre-described standard of "at least 20 percent."
Any plan that calls for such unstable political animals as school directors to exercise good judgment can hardly be described as reform.
In addition, school directors are granted the latitude to enact a tax on personal income of 1.5 percent. In other words, property tax relief is little more than token in scope and, besides, we're going to have to pay 1.5 percent more in income taxes!
We're granting a governmental license to school boards to raid our pocketbooks to a larger degree in spite of school boards having a glaring record of ineptitude in recent years. Governor, give us a break.
Simultaneously, tax reform is designed to eradicate such "nuisance taxes" as $10 wage taxes and occupational privilege taxes. But when you think about it, $10 isn't so bad in comparison to the series of income, sales and use taxes which are set down in "tax reform."
In our view, the Casey administration is trying to run a fast break with this tax package. When you walk into the voting booth on May 16, you had better have your defenses ready:
A NO vote.
A RARE CHANCE FOR REAL REFORM
If the referendum is approved, it won't be a victory for any one party, but rather a victory for good government and fairer taxation.
If it loses, a rare opportunity to make meaningful and comprehensive changes in the antiquated system of local taxation will have been lost, possibly for many years to come.
Were it in our hands to shape a better system of local taxation, we would have done it differently. But the issue isn't whether this proposal is the best, it's whether it more than marginally improves what we've got. The answer is an unqualified yes.
The existing system hides a lot of inequities many taxpayers are simply unaware of unless they make a concerted effort to find out. The over-reliance on property taxation, with its outdated and erroneous assessments, guarantees unfair sharing of the tax burden.
And taxes such as the occupation assessment tax - which depend on the unchecked veracity of individual taxpayers, and which as many as a quarter of all taxpayers avoid paying entirely - insure the existence of gross and widespread inequities.
The biggest thing going for the existing system is familiarity, but it is a lot less familiar than we think. It has existed for so long, not because of any inherent merit, but because it does such a good job of concealing its faults.
There is no question that under the proposed tax reform plan there will be winners and losers. But the outcome will be one determined to a larger extent by a known quantity - income - and less by chance, political influence and just plain tax avoidance.
Most of the people who would end up paying more in taxes, in fact, would finally be paying their fair share.
And isn't that about time?