Budget and pension reform aside, PA has plenty of other unfinished business
By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The theme at the state Capitol this week could be “unfinished business.”
After all, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has refused to sign a no-new-taxes budget passed by state legislators from his own party and with enough time to finalize it by the June 30 deadline. The governor is waiting on another piece of unfinished business — pension reform, which died in the state House on Tuesday.
While a late budget and stalled pension reform are likely to grab the most attention this week, Pennsylvania’s elected officials have left plenty of other work unfinished.
SUMMER BREAK: Property tax reform, paycheck protection and gift reform are among the legislative initiatives that have stalled at the state Capitol this summer.
Property tax reform
Two months ago, state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, proclaimed that Pennsylvania “was closer than ever to slaying the school district property tax beast.”
It’s now July, and the monster still lives.
On Tuesday, state Senate sponsors of legislation to eliminate property taxes released a joint statement explaining why. The legislation lacks the votes to get out of the Senate Finance Committee.
“At the suggestion of the grassroots groups who brought us the original legislation, we will find a way for a vote on the full Senate floor on this key issue,” said the statement from Sens. Argall, John Yudichak, Judy Schwank, Mike Folmer and Lisa Boscola. “While we would have hoped it would have been sooner, with 25 co-sponsors, this is the farthest this issue has ever made it in the state Senate. We remain 100 percent committed to eliminating school property taxes for all Pennsylvanians.”
David Baldinger, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Taxpayers Association and coordinator of Pennsylvania Taxpayers Cyber Coalition, added his thoughts.
“Countless property owners are demanding relief from this crippling tax,” he said in a statement. “We have pushed and will continue to push to bring a vote in the Senate. We look forward to the Senate having a thorough and honest debate on this issue.”
The Senate doesn’t have another scheduled session day until Sept. 15, but it could return next week if the fiscal code is amended in the state House.
Argall’s Senate Bill 76 would replace property tax revenue dollar-for-dollar with revenue from an expanded and higher sales tax, as well as money from an increased state income tax. Property taxes needed to pay off school districts’ construction debt would still be charged.
Grassroots taxpayer organizations across the country have embraced the idea — fed up with people losing their homes over rising property tax bills they cannot afford.
That hasn’t been enough. The Senate hasn’t been on the same page as the state House, which passed a different version of property tax reform; it would give school districts the power to phase out or reduce property taxes through an elimination tax.
There’s another glaring issue. Property taxes pull in about $12 billion a year. So even though Argall’s legislation would eliminate property taxes, those funds would have to be made up elsewhere — such as through a sales tax that would apply to clothing valued at more than $50 and other previously untaxed items.
After gaining momentum in both chambers last week, so-called paycheck protection legislation didn’t come up for a vote during budget week.
That means the state’s public-sector union employees can continue to have their dues, fair-share fees and political money collected through automatic deductions from their paychecks. Supporters of paycheck protection, which would end that practice, said government resources shouldn’t be used to collect money unions can use for political purposes.
The bright line argument, though, hasn’t gotten the bills to the finish line. Not that conservatives haven’t been trying to nudge it along – especially after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that partial public employees who decide against joining a union can’t be required to pay a union fee for representation.
“The Court’s acknowledgement of government union overreach and the free speech rights of employees and taxpayers should give Pennsylvania lawmakers the backing they need to pass paycheck protection and end the use of taxpayer resources to collect union political money,” said Matthew Brouillette, president of The Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank.
Bills were moved out of committee in both chambers last week, but with some tweaks to allow the deduction of fair-share fees. Since then, they have gone back to idling.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has convened a grand jury to investigate a sting case that Attorney General Kathleen Kane shut down — but not after a handful of elected officials were recorded accepting cash and gifts from a lobbyist.
Yet state lawmakers haven’t taken the obvious step of banning themselves from accepting cash gifts, a perfectly legal practice as long as members of the General Assembly follow reporting protocol. Even then, gifts under $250 don’t have to be disclosed.
“I think everybody thought banning cash gifts was a no-brainer,” said Eric Epstein, founder of Rock the Capital, a political reform group.
Right now, it’s a no-go. The state Senate approved legislation that would ban cash gifts, but the House hasn’t followed suit.
State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, also said in late April that even more comprehensive gift reform could be on the way, but that hasn’t happened, either. He didn’t return a message seeking comment Tuesday.
Epstein borrowed from the World Cup mania — a fitting decision since the House conveniently extended its recess to coincide with Tuesday’s match between the U.S. and Belgium — to remind lawmakers that they don’t get “stoppage time.”
“Running out the clock is not reform. And inertia is not progress,” he said.
Reducing the size of the Legislature
A proposal to slash 50 seats from the 203-member state House and a five from the state Senate is still treading water in the upper chamber.
That’s even after lawmakers removed a possible poison pill that also made reductions to the judiciary and eliminated the lieutenant governor’s post. The Senate put the issue on hold late last week.
Epstein had more harsh words ready, considering another reform measure is in hibernation.
“Statutory reform has been dulled to faint pulse in the Legislature,” he said. “It’s time for voters sharpen their electoral knives.”
Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.