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Lycoming candidates talk property taxes

WILLIAMSPORT — A question on property taxes was posed to candidates for state House and Senate seats. The candidates are Airneezer Page, Democrat, and Jeff Wheeland, Republican, 83rd House; Amanda Waldman, Democrat, and Joe Hamm, Republican, 84th House; Jackie Baker, Democrat, and Gene Yaw, Republican, 23rd Senate. Here’s what they had to say.

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Question: Do you feel property taxes used to help fund schools, counties and municipalities, should be eliminated or reduced? If so, what is your plan to replace those tax revenues?

Page: “I don’t think there should be any increase in property taxes. Our schools are under-funded, and I think we need to put pressure on states and the federal government to increase funding to schools. The minimum wage is all tied to job scarcity and you have people on fixed incomes. You are taxing people out of the area. I believe it is incumbent on state and federal government to fund those revenues. It is mandatory for children to go to school, but our kids are in jeopardy of falling behind and must remain competitive in the world. We balance a budget and make sure our school system and hospitals and other institutions that support our people are fully funded.”

Wheeland: “It is time for Pennsylvania to move away from our antiquated system of property taxes as a primary source of funding these government services. Our Founding Fathers brought the concept of property tax from Europe with them. It made sense, back then, because every parcel of land generated revenue. If you were a lawyer you worked from your home, an innkeeper lived there, a grocery store owner lived on the second floor etc. The dawning of the Industrial Revolution changed all that. Today the vast majority of owner-occupied housing does not have the ability to generate income. “I think it would be helpful to first place this question in context. The most recent reporting from the Tax Foundation places Pennsylvania number 10, at 1.46 percent, on the list of ‘Property Taxes Paid as a Percentage of Owner-Occupied Housing Value.’ New Jersey is 1, or worse, at 2.13 percent and Hawaii is 50, which is best, at 0.30 percent.

“Does this mean a particular state pays more or less to operate their schools, counties or municipal government entities? In some cases yes, however, when you dig deeper you will find the lower percentage states tend to utilize additional tax revenue streams. An example being a state that may levy an additional 1 percent or 2 percent sales tax and directing those dollars toward the operation of these three forms of government.

“Although I support dissolving this ‘old’ form of taxation and looking at a fairer way to fund schools, county and municipal government, I am in a distinct minority of elected officials in Harrisburg. There are many reasons why it is so difficult to engage other representatives in meaningful discussion. One of those road blocks is the simple fact that many House and Senate districts border or are in close proximity to number 1 New Jersey. I have been told, many times, that those constituencies ‘feel’ when compared to their friends and neighbors across the border they are getting a ‘deal’ here in Pennsylvania.

“Not so long ago a friend asked the question, ‘Jeff, do we actually own real estate or are we renting it from the government?'”

Waldman: “I support working toward property tax reductions. In a perfect world, property tax elimination, or at least significant reduction, would be easily achieved, but this is far from a perfect world. I will not lie to the public about this issue just to get elected. Our current tax structure across the board is not set up to enable us to eliminate or even significantly reduce the tax burden on the people, which is why this issue hasn’t been corrected yet. For us to balance the taxpayer portion of funding for public education, we must have a plan for comprehensive tax reform. If we focus on all areas of tax policy, we address the issue of property taxes, while also increasing the state revenue, attract new businesses and expand the job market.

“First and foremost, and specifically targeted to address the yearly property tax hikes, the Legislature in Pennsylvania must put pressure on the federal government to fully fund the mandates they have imposed on states. This must be done immediately. Schools are unable to cut costs in any of the mandated areas, yet they are often the most expensive to meet. I am not advocating for a reduction in these mandates, but the funding for the mandates must be fully restored.

“The current options being considered in Harrisburg, most recently Sente Bill 76, which is not supported by the PA Chamber of Business and Industry includes raising the personal income tax and the state sales tax rates. There are multiple problems with this proposal. These tax shifts, coupled with the economic devastation from the Covid 19 pandemic, would devastate small businesses and working families. This has been proposed previously, and our legislators, from both parties, voted against it each time because it was a bad idea. And it’s still a bad idea.

“Shifting public education funding from local property taxes to income and sales tax could also impact local oversight of how funds are spent. This would also increase the size and scope of state government. New oversight and accountability offices would need to be created to oversee the collection and redistribution of these funds back to local school districts. That is an additional waste of time and money that the taxpayers would pay for, not too mention, making the government even larger and more intrusive on the rights of local governments.

“Second, these types of taxes, also referred to as regressive taxes, disproportionately impact working, middle, and low-income families.

“Third, these plans all call for additional items to be taxed, including diapers and over-the-counter medicines, which would disproportionately harm working families who already have very limited disposable income.

“I will work toward a fair tax system; an overhaul of both the corporate and small business tax rates; and implementing combined reporting requirements so that all corporations doing business and making a profit here in Pennsylvania have to pay taxes here in the state.”

Hamm: “I believe that property taxes are out of control and I support finding a solution to reduce and eliminate these taxes. Many hard working Pennsylvanians often face tough decisions to pay for food on their table, pay for their medications OR pay their property taxes. Our seniors, after working all their lives, risk losing their homes because they can’t afford the ever-increasing property taxes. Young adults leave Pennsylvania to move to states with lower tax rates. We have to cut spending in Harrisburg and lower taxes. We need to get more money into the classrooms and less money to overhead expenses. House Bill 76 and Senate Bill 76 have been introduced the last three legislative sessions which provides ways to eliminate property tax. I will conduct a thorough study of HB/SB 76 and work to find a solution to reduce and eliminate property taxes. I believe it starts with cutting expenses and ending the tax and spend mentality that has gone on for decades.”

Baker: “Adequate funding for public education should not fall solely on property owners. The state government shares responsibility for funding K-12 schools. Pennsylvania funds K-12 education at a far lower level than many other states. Over the past twenty-some years, the Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg have opposed adequately and equitably funding schools districts across the commonwealth.

“I have heard from many people whose main concern is rising property taxes. It’s really hurting our senior citizens and working-class people, like myself, who live paycheck to paycheck. I support reducing school property taxes for middle to low income earners, seniors, and veterans. We cannot allow rising property taxes to impoverish working people and those on fixed incomes.

“In Pennsylvania, local revenue losses reaching $1 billion to $2 billion are impacting public school funding, leading to rises in local property taxes. Relying too heavily on local property taxes to fund education creates a problem with unequal funding to school districts, affecting the quality of the education a student receives. As an experienced teacher, I know first-hand the effects of funding, or lack thereof, has on schools and their students. Funding public education is extremely important to me.

“When it comes to taxes and funding, there are a lot of other things we can do to bring revenue into the state to help fund education and relieve the tax burden on our citizens. We must pass a fair share tax so that the lowest earners are not paying the highest amount of taxes, while the richest companies pay nothing at all. Pennsylvania must increase basic education funding, run through the fair funding formula, by at least $3.7 billion over a number of years; provide resources in accordance with the funding formula faster to those districts that historically are shortchanged by state funding to reduce the historic geographic and racial inequities that currently exist; raise the state’s share of special education funding to what it was a decade ago — 35 percent — so all students in need of special education get access to the services they are entitled to; and ensure there is adequate CTE funding and that it is distributed equitably so that every student interested in career and technical training has the opportunity to take part in it and get the skills they need.

“It’s time to solve the school property tax problem, and relieve the tax burden on our seniors and lowest earners.”

Yaw: “I meet frequently with individuals and groups who want to eliminate property taxes. Given just that question who is going to say they do not want property taxes eliminated? Realistically, however, we must have an approach which balances relief for taxpayers with the continuing responsibility to properly fund our schools.

“Unfortunately, a handful of the proposals put forth in the Legislature sound great on the surface but leave many unanswered questions or unacceptable results in the details. Senate Bill 76 and House Bill 76, which have been introduced over several consecutive sessions, propose to eliminate only school real estate taxes. These bills are not a tax reduction but are a tax shift away from real estate taxes to other taxes. Eliminating real estate taxes means property owners such as US Steel, McDonald’s, Lowes, Walmart, Mohegan Sun Casino, along with all other businesses would pay zero school property taxes. On the other hand, workers in those companies would face a 61 percent increase in their personal income tax and a 16 percent increase in our sales tax, as well as an expanded list of goods and services in order to offset the tax shift. Obviously, those who would be paying for this tax shift are working families. I am aware that the property tax as it exists today falls heavily on senior citizens who own property. In recent sessions, I have sought support for legislation which would implement a real estate tax freeze for individuals who are 67 years of age or older based on those who qualify for a homestead exemption. One proposal is to place this burden on the state to reimburse school districts for the amount lost by freezing the tax at a certain level. How to fund this tax freeze is the question.

“I have been working on a plan which would require all school budgets to be submitted to the voters of the respective school district every year. The concept is simple — let the taxpayers who provide the funding approve the expenses. New York has had such a procedure in place for decades and it seems to work well. Under this idea, the school district would prepare a budget much as is currently done. That budget would then be the subject of one or more public hearings, which would give the residents of the district an opportunity to review and question the proposed budget. Following the public hearing stage, the budget would be submitted to the district residents for an up or down vote. Budgets that are rejected by the residents would require the school district to spend at the prior year’s level of expenses plus an inflation factor.”

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