POLS ON THE STREET: Wipe out School Property Tax? It Could Happen

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SEPTA GENERAL MANAGER Jeffrey Knueppel, who is retiring at the end of the year, fulfilled a dream that he had starting out as an engineer decades ago by inaugurating a comprehensive round of upgrades to the 15th Street Blue Line Station, the focal hub of the five-county agency’s system. Mayor Jim Kenney, L, and Congressman Dwight Evans participated in the ribbon-cutting.

How about this: A fundamental overhaul of Pennsylvania taxation that splits the state almost down the middle – while being completely bipartisan? You don’t pass this convoy on the turnpike very often.

Eliminating the school property tax is that cause. This method of funding public education, dating to the 1830s, is decried by its foes as archaic and unfair. But many education supporters prefer to stick with the devil they know; after all, property can’t move out of the school district so it is a predictable long-range revenue source.

The issue matters to Philadelphia in particular because of the city’s high poverty rate – around 25%. How does the current property tax impact our poor citizens? Would a different funding system be better or worse for them?

State Sen. David Argall (R-Schuylkill) is a determined advocate of school property-tax elimination. He has pressed this measure for many years in the Senate with key democratic allies. The last time around, in 2015, it died in a 24-24 tie when Lt. Gov. Mike Stack voted against it. But it’s back this year in the form of SB 76, with a companion bill in the House.

COUNCILMAN Bobby Henon turned to a friendly circle of attorneys, labor activists and ward leaders to juice up his war chest in an intimate funder held at DelFrisco’s Grill in Center City.

First: the bite removed. Roughly half of Philadelphia’s property tax is school tax. So if that portion of your property tax is deleted, your property-tax bill will be cut in half. For Philadelphians complaining about rising property taxes due to rising home valuations, that should be sweet music.

Poor people in Philadelphia have a high rate of home ownership compared to other big cities. So halving this tax bill would combat homelessness and foster the inheritance of capital in low-income communities.
But the property tax impacts renters equally. Landlords factor in this tax when they set their rents. So eliminating half this tax should brake rent increases – and most poor Philadelphians live in rental properties.

PHILLY For Warren hosted a watching party to cheer on their candidate during last week’s Democratic Presidential Debate. The event, held at Dock Street Brewery South, was very well attended and included PFW members, L-R, Jake Hoffman, Steph Davis, Melissa Dodd and Taryn Cregon.

Sounds great. But where else will the money come from then? SB 76 would increase the Personal Income Tax and the Sales & Use Tax to compensate. The PIT would go up from 3.07% to 4.95%. The sales tax would go up by 1 percentage point and broaden the base to include more services and products. Necessities and business-to-business transactions will continue to be exempt from the sales tax.

Everybody likes tax relief and nobody likes tax increases. But how would Argall’s plan affect poor Philadelphians in particular?

Poor Philadelphians, by definition, aren’t assessed much in the way of income tax. Sales tax is a bigger hit to their paycheck; but Pennsylvania’s sales tax is designed to exempt necessities of life, so an increase would target mostly those who can afford to pay a little more to educate children.

Perhaps, then, advocates for low-income Philadelphians may want to take a closer look at this measure.

CITY COMMISSIONER Lisa Deeley, L, and hostess Karen Borski, R, greeted Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell at Deeley’s fundraiser at Philadelphia Federal Credit Union.

The last time around, though, Philadelphia progressives circled the wagons around the school property tax. Perhaps they were enticed by the city’s rising property values, a tasty revenue source if the trend continues.

Hometown opponents included the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools Allies for Children, American Institute of Architects Pennsylvania, Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Bar Association, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower & Rebuild (POWER), Public Citizens for Children and Youth and the Public Interest Law Center of Pennsylvania.

It will be interesting to see how Philadelphia caucuses in Harrisburg line up on this issue.

Wolf, GOP Reach Deal on Voting

In a historic change, Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-ruled legislature agreed on a comprehensive package of election reforms, with something for both sides. The upshot is that it will be easier for Pennsylvanians to vote.
The GOP got to eliminate straight-ticket voting, a practice that is thought to favor Democrats.

STATE REPS. Mary Isaacson and Joe Hohenstein and Consultant Angela Piccarello joined AFL-CIO President Pat Eiding and Jerry Jordan, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president, in inspecting poor conditions of our city schools. They met with school officials at Port Richmond Elementary School. Photo from Isaacson’s Facebook page

The Democrats got to move up the voter-registration deadline from 30 days to 15 days before the election.

Both sides favored easier online registration and the removal of a need to give a reason for getting an absentee ballot. Also included was the vital $90 million to upgrade vote security.

State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-W. Phila.) was instrumental in piecing together this deal.

For Auditor General, It’s Now Ahmad vs. Hartman

It’s official now: Two Democrats are seeking the party’s nomination to replace State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who will reach his term limit in 2020.

Nina Ahmad, former deputy mayor of Philadelphia, formally threw her hat in the ring. Ahmad, a Northwest progressive, previously ran for lieutenant governor, winning 23% of the statewide vote in 2018.

Ahmad called for “accountability and transparency. Pennsylvania residents deserve elected officials they can trust and a commonwealth that operates in plain sight.”

Ahmad will be competing with Christina Hartman, a former congressional candidate in Lancaster County. Others are eyeing the race, among them former Philadelphia Controller Alan Butkovitz. The commitment season has begun; by Christmas, the primary race will be confirmed.

Republicans Plug for Dem Support in November

An irony of Philadelphia politics well known to insiders is that in the at-large councilmanic races, all five Republican candidates lust in different ways for Democratic votes.

COUNCILMAN Derek Green held a fundraiser at one of his favorite spots, Time Lounge in Center City. Joining him, L-R, were Greg Davis, Mark Harris, Pamela Harris Williams, Green and George Burrell. Photo by Wendell Douglas

Take, for example, the annual pre-election cocktail party hosted by Democratic City Committee at Sheet Metal Workers Hall on Columbus Boulevard. At the spring party, just before the primary election, the street outside was garlanded with signs touting scads of Democratic candidates.

But that race is over. In the fall, before the general election, there were no Democratic candidates’ signs on the boulevard. The only signage to be seen was that of Republican councilmanic at-large hopeful Dan Tinney, who enjoys large union backing.

Inside the union hall, fellow Republican Councilman Al Taubenberger was busily working the roomful of Democrats.

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