Friday, June 23, 2006

Tony Phyrillas: Tax rebate ploy isn't fooling anyone

The verdict is in.

Even before Gov. Ed Rendell has had a chance to sign the compromise Senate-House tax rebate bill into law and stand before the TV cameras to pretend he's delivered on his promise to cut property taxes, just about everybody agrees the bill stinks to high hell.

Forget any political mileage Rendell and the legislators who voted for it anticipated to get. I've yet to come across a single person dumb enough to believe that House Bill 39 is anything more than a feeble attempt by career politicians to fool voters. Rendell and the Harrisburg bunch aren't fooling anyone but themselves.

The scheme has been panned by the Pennsylvania Taxpayer Alliance, an umbrella organization that represents a dozen grassroots citizen groups across the state.

Lynn Swann, the Republican candidate for governor, and Russ Diamond, the founder of PaCleanSweep and an independent candidate for governor, has also blasted the rebate plan. "Call this bill 'relief' or 'reform' is a joke," Diamond said.

Even members of the legislature have been uncharacteristically frank in their assessment of the compromise plan.

"The people of Pennsylvania deserve more than a legislature that takes the course of least resistance just so something can be passed. This is nothing more than political appeasement, and we are going to be right back where we started in only a year or two as property taxes continue to rise," stated Rep. Curt Schroder, a Republican from Chester County. "This plan simply just does not go far enough to help the hard working families of Pennsylvania."

Under the plan approved by the House, seniors with an annual income under $15,000 will get a few hundred dollars back in 2009 or 2010 — if state revenues from casinos reaches $1 billion. Seniors still have to pay property taxes.

Schroder pointed out that relatively few seniors in his district will be eligible for the tax rebates because of the low income threshold. He also cautioned that the rebates could quickly be eaten up in future years as school districts again increase property taxes. In other words, don't spend that $200 right away because you may end paying $600 more to support your local school district.

Schroder was one of 61 House members, mostly Republicans, who voted against the tax rebate plan previously approved by the state Senate and championed by Rendell.

Many of the 61 conservatives in the House supported an amendment that would have increased the sales tax by 1 percent and eliminated property taxes.

"We had an opportunity to provide the citizens of this Commonwealth with significant relief, but we settled for a plan being pushed by the governor and the Senate," said Schroder, pointing fingers at the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled Senate.

Another Republican who took his frustration out at his fellow House members was Rep. Sam Rohrer, chairman of the Commonwealth Caucus, a group of legislators who've been pushing for the elimination of property taxes by expanding and increasing the state sales tax.

The House has taken three votes on the Commonwealth Caucus in the past year, but too many Republicans joined Democrats to defeat the measure.

"The reality that the Pennsylvania House of Representatives cannot agree to eliminate 100 percent of school property taxes when the opportunity was handed to them for a third time on a silver platter is impossible to accept for Pennsylvania property owners who have been promised this economic relief for more than three decades," Rohrer said. "They are tired of being insecure in their properties that they have toiled, saved and raised their families in for years. They are tired of living under the very realistic fear of losing their homes, farms or businesses due to property tax bills they can no longer afford to pay. They are tired of political pandering. But most of all, they are tired of being ignored by their elected officials at all levels of state government from the General Assembly to the governor’s office who talk about taking revolutionary action and ultimately choose to decide against the crystal clear will of the people."

Wow! When was the last time a politician was so candid?

Although the theme of the past year has been a clean sweep of Harrisburg politicians, there are some decent legislators who are looking out for the people of Pennsylvania, including Schroder and Rohrer. Other Pottstown-area representatives who voted against the rebate scheme include Raymond Bunt, Jackie Crahalla, Tim Hennessey and Tom Quigley.

The problem is there aren't enough of them to move the roadblocks put up by self-serving Philadelphia politicians like Ed Rendell and Republican House Speaker John Perzel.

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. E-mail him at tphyrillas@pottsmerc.com