School Property Tax Elimination Eliminated by Pennsylvania House

At least 29 co-sponsors of a bill to eliminate Pennsylvania property taxes cut-and-ran Tuesday, as opponents crushed the measure offered as a bill amendment by a 138-59 vote.

The amendment was actually the language of House Bill 76 sponsored by state Rep. Jim Cox (R-Berks), and Cox claimed during floor debate House Republican leadership would offer him no support for the measure. Cox also said he could not get the bill out of the House Finance Committee, chaired by one-time conservative firebrand Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre).

The give-and-take during floor debate between Cox and Benninghoff was one thinly veiled in hostility and antagonism. Benninghoff, who supported similar legislation a decade ago “for ideological reasons” turned his back on the Cox offering “because it is time to govern.”

Benninghoff said a report from the state’s Independent Financial Office (IFO) stated using the Cox plan of raising the state’s personal income tax from 3.07 percent to 4.34 percent and the state sales tax from 6 to 7 percent to eliminate school property taxes would leave the state with a $4 billion revenue hole.

Cox said he had not seen the IFO report until late yesterday afternoon when the Minority Chair of the Finance Committee, state Rep. Phyllis Mundy (D-Luzerne) made a copy for him. Cox added his brief perusal of the 60-page report indicated the IFO had not calculated school district spending restraints in his proposal.

There were flaws in his amendment, Cox admitted, but asked “what bill has ever passed in its original form with no changes?”

Cox was attempting to amend House Bill 1189, sponsored by state Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) which would allow the state’s 500 school boards to reduce local school property taxes in exchange for the ability to raise local income taxes and business taxes. HB 1189 will be voted later this week, but Grove said anyone voting for the Cox amendment was “foolish.”

School property taxes are a sore spot for many Pennsylvanians since they continue to rise on a nearly annual basis, generating $13 billion this year along, with another $9 billion from state government. Next year, according to Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the floor debate, local school costs will go up at least $1.2 billion and state costs another $600 million, simply to cover underfunded teacher pension costs.

The amendment had a number of Democratic House members supporting it because of promises made on the property tax issue. Cox has said more than 10,000 Pennsylvanians lost their homes last year for the inability to keep up with their property taxes.

Cox said he had 88 co-sponsors for his plan, but mustered only 59 votes:  40 Republicans and 19 Democrats. As state Rep. Jerry Knowles (R-Schuylkill), a Cox supporter, said in the debate before the vote, “Today, we will find out who is for real and who the phonies are.”

Most of the 40 Republicans voting for the Cox proposal are members of the conservative core of the 110-member GOP majority.