Pennsylvania property tax under new attack in legislature

Posted: April 09, 2012

When it comes to the real estate tax, opinion is deeply divided: Half of property owners hate it, and the other half really, really hate it.

Dissatisfaction appears to be off the charts in North Dakota. In June, in what is believed to be a first, voters will decide whether to scrap the unpopular levy.

"We consider North Dakota to be Lexington and Concord," said Charlene Nelson, a home-schooling mother who is a referendum organizer.

Although nothing of that magnitude is unfolding in Pennsylvania, the legislature once again is considering bills to eliminate the property tax, oft-criticized for being unfair, antiquated, and baffling. For a variety of reasons, the levy has come under fresh attack in the Keystone State.

True, on a statewide basis, New Jerseyans pay the highest property-tax rates in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation in Washington. As an issue there, the property tax is "still No. 1," said Jerry Cantrell, an activist and founder of the Common Sense Institute of New Jersey, a nonprofit that researches and analyzes public policy.

However, rates in parts of Delaware County and upstate Pennsylvania are even higher than New Jersey's, and storms are brewing at both ends of the state. In Allegheny County, after reassessment, more than 80,000 property owners have appealed their real estate taxes this year. Philadelphia, which is trying to change its system, appears to be a property-tax revolt waiting to happen.

Parallel bills introduced last week in the Pennsylvania House and Senate would replace the property levy with a 1 point increase in the sales tax, to 7 percent; an expansion of the taxable-items list, and an increase in the wage tax from 3.07 percent to 4.01 percent.

"I think we have a chance to get it done," said David Baldinger, a retired radio personality who lives in the Reading area and who started the Pennsylvania Tax Cyber Coalition eight years ago. It now includes more than 70 groups and 60,000 people.

"It's probably got an outside chance," said Nathan A. Benefield, director of policy research for the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg.

An earlier version introduced by Rep. Sam Rohrer (R., Berks) went nowhere, but Baldinger said the new bills remove some of the objections.

However, Benefield said they were likely to run into similar resistance from the prospective sales-tax newbies. Among them are funeral directors, lawyers, accountants, and - did we mention? - newspaper publishers.

Just how much love would a wage-tax increase generate?

For all its problems and deficiencies, the property tax has survived for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is its reliability as a source of revenue. Sales and wage taxes are far more recession-sensitive. Jobs leave, properties don't.

Schools and government services cost money. Teachers and police officers must be paid; personnel costs dominate budgets. Cuts in Washington, Harrisburg, and Trenton translate to higher costs in Philadelphia, Colwyn, and Cherry Hill.

Baldinger said he and the state's tax groups fully understood that government tabs must be paid - just do so with other taxes, they say. He said that in traveling throughout the state again and again, he had heard, "Get rid of the property tax."

North Dakotans could decide to do that. Should they vote against the levy, it would be up to state lawmakers to come up with a new tax menu.

As assessments doubled and tripled with increasing property values there, Nelson and other activists pushed the legislature for reforms. Finally, they collected about 30,000 signatures on a petition to put a question on the June ballot.

The referendum, understandably, has led to consternation. "All the government types are end-of-the-world, sky-is-falling," she said. "Legislators are coming out of the woodwork and saying, 'We're really, really going to fix it.' "

Said Nelson: "It's too late."


Contact Anthony R. Wood at 610-761-8423 or twood@phillynews.com.

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