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Right message, wrong time

July 08, 2003

Outnumbered by Republicans in the state legislature, Pennsylvania's Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell is taking his school-funding plan directly to the people. Unfortunately, he's picked the wrong time to do it.

Responding to complaints that Pennsylvania's school funding system is too heavily dependent on property taxes, Rendell proposed a switch - cut property taxes and replace the funds lost with an increase in the income tax.

And in an effort to increase state test scores, Rendell proposed increasing funding for preschool programs and provide full-day kindergarten for all districts.

But for the legislature, the choking point has been the income-tax increase. Though it's coupled with a property-tax cut, lawmakers fear increasing any tax could leave them vulnerable to future foes. All they've agreed on so far is a bill that preserves things pretty much as they are.

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And so, with things stalled and the Republican legislative majority unwilling to concede much, Rendell has decided to campaign publicly for the idea, encouraging groups who back the idea to hold press conferences to declare their support.

But the problem is that all of this is coming in early July, when the legislature is trying to tie up all the loose ends and head home. Citizens who might be inclined to pay closer attention are busy with their own vacations, or doing double duty covering for colleagues who are taking trips of their own.

All that will change in September, when students return to school and businesses and individuals begin to look at what the year's last quarter will mean in terms of taxes for 2003.

That's the point at which Rendell can make the case that had the legislature done something, senior-citizen homeowners on fixed incomes would be less burdened by property taxes.

This is not an endorsement of any bill; compromise legislation hasn't been written yet. We do back the idea of serious discussion of Rendell's idea. To get that, the governor has to reach the people when they're ready to pay attention.

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