COMMONWEALTH Forum: Should Pennsylvania Abolish the Property Tax for Schools?
In November 2015, the Pennsylvania Senate narrowly failed to pass legislation abolishing the local school property tax and replacing it with state revenues raised by higher income and sales tax rates and the extension of the sales tax to a range of goods and services now exempt. The legislation, supported by dozens of citizen tax reform groups across Pennsylvania, was defeated 25–24 when Lt. Governor Michael Stack cast a tiebreaking vote against an amendment embodying the changes.
State Senators David Argall and Judith Schwank were principal sponsors of the legislation and vowed to continue the fight. Indeed, legislation to replace, reform, and reduce the property tax, particularly for schools, has been proposed and debated for decades, and some relief measures have been enacted, but the tax remains the principal levy to fund schools in Pennsylvania and in most states. Citizens in Pennsylvania and nationally consistently tell pollsters that it is the worst tax, and few if any elected officials will defend the levy, except on the pragmatic grounds that replacing it would require unrealistically large increases in state taxes.
COMMONWEALTH invited Senator Argall, chair of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, and Jon Hopcraft, the committee’s executive director, to summarize the argument that the tax is an antiquated and unfair levy and should be abolished. We invited Dartmouth College economist William A. Fischel, a nationally recognized expert who attended Pennsylvania public schools, to summarize his argument that, compared to statewide taxes, the local levy provides voters—even in households without school children—with stronger incentives to support high quality public schools.
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