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Pa. lawmakers eye a fix for property-tax system

September 27, 2005

If you give someone a choice and they don't choose to act as you'd like them to, is it OK to force them to do your will?

Most people would say no. That's the dilemma facing the Pennsylvania Legislature's members, as they enter a special session designed to bring property-tax relief.

It was supposed to be easier than this. Legislators passed ACT 72, which would allow the state's 501 school districts to replace property-tax revenue with cash from newly legalized slot machines.

But to get the slot money, school boards had to agree not to raise taxes above the rate of inflation without taking such proposals to referendum.

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Schools boards, many of which face surges in student population, were wary. Would the slots cash be enough? Would voters who had received property-tax relief willingly give it up if new schools were needed?

The result: About 80 percent of the school boards balked, according to The Associated Press. That put property-tax reform on hold. Now lawmakers must figure out how to achieve their original objective without stepping too hard on school board members' toes.

Gov. Ed Rendell would like lawmakers to force school boards to go along. But Senate President Pro Tempore Robert C. Jubelirer, R-Blair, believes that's a bad idea.

Instead, Jubelirer would like to give school boards another chance to participate in 2007, when slot cash is expected to start rolling in.

But between now and then there is an election. And, for lawmakers already sweating over voters' reaction to their voting themselves a big raise, the pressure is on to deliver tax relief in some form.

The bill with the best chance would fund some school costs by reducing the state's sales tax from 6 percent to 5 percent, but apply it to everything but medical-related needs.

As we have said previously, expect some fight over which services would be covered. But the virtue of this bill is that it is fairly simple, although Rendell and advocates for the poor argue that it would hit the indigent harder than more affluent Pennsylvanians.

How those two issues are worked out will determine whether this proposal is a winner or a non-starter. If lawmakers remember that their original goal was to keep Pennsylvania's senior citizens from being taxed out of their homes, a compromise should be easier to find.

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