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Is Pennsylvania's trek toward tax relief over?

June 29, 2006

"We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately."

So said Benjamin Franklin in 1776 as he signed the Declaration of Independence.

Some of his descendants in Pennsylvania politics have decided that joining forces to cut taxes in an election year makes more sense than continuing to fight about it.

Gov. Ed Rendell came into office promising to reform the state's school-funding system, which many felt relied too heavily on property taxes.

Rendell aimed to relieve the financial pressure on the state's fixed-income elderly whose prime earning years were behind them.

Everybody liked that idea, but his plan to replace that burden with an increase in the income tax didn't fare as well.

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Just as Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich has spent years pursuing the legalization of slot machines, Rendell too has spent most of his term trying to get some form of property-tax reduction passed.

Since Rendell is a Democrat and Pennsylvania's legislature is dominated by Republicans - the opposite of the situation in Maryland - Rendell faced an uphill battle.

But despite many objections raised, Rendell was the beneficiary of an unexpected event. The legislature voted itself a pay raise in a late-night session and some members began to collect it immediately through something called "unvouchered expenses."

That happened even though the intent of the law seemed clear - raises voted on for lawmakers do not take effect until after the next election.

Incumbents who had what they assumed were safe seats were swept out in the primary, so others might now feel politically less invincible. And what better way to repair that political armor than cutting taxes in an election year?

The bill Rendell signed this week will use slot-machine revenue to deliver an estimated $1 billion a year in tax relief. The Associated Press reported that it will cut property taxes in the state by 17 percent.

Lynn Swann, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, noted that Rendell had promised a 30 percent cut when elected in 2002.

Perhaps Rendell was overly optimistic in 2002. But given the protracted battles over the legislation's many provisions, we recommend that all involved celebrate the fact that they've come this far before anyone concludes that they didn't go far enough.

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