It lacks votes, but Wagner rides promise to end school taxes

Marc Levy
Associated Press
FILE--This combination of October 2017 file photos shows Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidates Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf, left, and Republican Scott Wagner. Ending the ability of school boards to raise billions of dollars in school property taxes is a prominent campaign plank for Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner, one that he consistently advocates as a salve for overburdened taxpayers and fixed-income elderly struggling to keep their homes. What he doesn't say is how politically thorny and unrealistic it is when it comes to winning passage in the state Legislature. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, FILE)

HARRISBURG – Scott Wagner, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania, had a message for Victoria Clark when she told him that she is downsizing from her four-story home, partly because of the mortgage.

“Under my plan, your school property taxes will go away,” Wagner told Clark during a stop at her driveway sale while canvassing in her suburban Harrisburg neighborhood earlier this month.

Ending the ability of school boards to collect billions of dollars in property taxes is one of Wagner’s most prominent campaign planks, one that he consistently advocates as a salve for overburdened taxpayers and fixed-income elderly struggling to keep their homes.

Eliminating more than $13 billion in school property taxes collected statewide has been a cause for some lawmakers in Pennsylvania for well over a decade. And while Wagner criticizes the man he’s challenging, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, for failing to fight for it, a leading plan in the Legislature that Wagner backs has long lacked support in both chambers.

“Here’s the bottom line: everybody has the ability to go to the poll on Nov. 6 and vote for me for governor and it will get it done,” Wagner told a forum on school property taxes in Wilkes-Barre last month.

For years, lawmakers sympathetic to the cause have tried, and failed. Unresolved fights include how to raise the money to replace school property taxes. Opponents include prominent organizations, such as the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry — which endorsed Wagner for governor — and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Property taxes play an outsize role in paying for Pennsylvania’s public schools because Pennsylvania plays one of the smallest proportional roles of any state in helping to foot the bill.

It is 45th out of 50, supplying less than 38 percent of total revenue, according to federal data from 2016. It is a dynamic that critics blame for driving inequities between funding levels in poorer and wealthier school districts.

Existing proposals to replace the lost money revolve around the politically thorny concept of increasing state taxes on income and sales, money that the state would then distribute along with billions in aid it already sends to school districts.

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Business organizations worry about small businesses picking up a disproportionately large share of the shifting tax burden. School boards worry about losing financial control to the state, giving up a recession-proof revenue source and being stuck with a state government unwilling to adequately underwrite district costs.

Then there’s the massive wealth transfer — from average taxpayers to wealthier school districts — if school property taxes are replaced with higher state taxes on income and sales.

An Associated Press analysis of state data found that 75 percent of school property taxes were collected by school districts in the top half of average household income in 2016-17, the latest data available. Half of all school property taxes were collected by the wealthiest quarter of school districts.

“So consequently, it almost institutionalizes the inequities that are out there,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

For his part, Wolf floated a $3.2 billion plan in 2015, his first year as governor, and said last month that he had not seen a better plan.

Under Wolf’s plan, most of the money — just over $2 billion — goes to districts in the bottom half of average income, but the proposal went nowhere in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Wolf has, at times, said he supports eliminating school property taxes, but he also said last month that he wants districts to maintain authority over school finances while making the state “a better partner than they are now.”

Eliminating school property taxes would put Pennsylvania in a small group of states — including Arkansas, Vermont and Hawaii — in which there is little local funding role.

It’s not clear that eliminating school property taxes would necessarily threaten the quality of schools.

Rutgers University education professor Bruce Baker, who studies inequality in public school finance, said school quality is less about the source of the funding and more about the cumulative amount of state and local funding.

Back at the driveway sale, Wagner didn’t explain to Clark how he would eliminate property taxes as governor, Clark didn’t ask and the conversation moved on to another topic.

Wagner left, saying an aide would call Clark to discuss his property tax plan.

But, Clark said, nobody ever called.