Monday, October 09, 2006

Tony Phyrillas: Welcome to 'Taxsylvania'

If Gov. Ed Rendell was Pinocchio and his nose grew one inch every time he told a fib, Rendell's schnozz would stretch across the entire length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Rendell has been telling us for months by way of those tedious television commercials that he's cut taxes in Pennsylvania. If anyone out there has seen his taxes fall under Rendell, I'd like to hear from you. Rendell also keeps telling people that the business climate in Pennsylvania has improved since he took office in 2003. Again, that appears to be a tall tale.

Truth is Pennsylvania residents are paying $2 billion more in property taxes today than they were when Rendell became governor. Rendell also signed into law a $1 billion increase in the state income tax. So how does he get away with saying he's cut taxes? He has unlimited money from lobbyists and corporate fat cats and telling the truth is not a requirement in television commercials.

The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax research group based in Washington, D.C., has released a new study that shows the tax burden on Americans broken down by counties. Pennsylvania has 38 counties on the list of the top 750 counties where homeowners pay the highest property taxes.

Five Pennsylvania counties — Chester, Bucks, Delaware, Montgomery and Monroe — made the list of the Top 100 most heavily taxed counties in the United States. Expand the list to the Top 150 and you can add Northampton, Berks and Lehigh counties.

The median tax paid by a Chester County homeowner was $3,678 per year. In Montgomery County, the median tax was $3,474 per year. In Berks County, the median tax was $2,592. The median means half the homeowners paid higher taxes and half paid less.

Homeowners in suburban counties closest to New York City topped the list of highest property taxes by county, with Westchester County coming in at $7,337. Second was Nassau County, where the median property tax is $7,025. Of course, the median value of a home in Westchester County is $541,000. In Nassau County, it's $469,000. That part makes sense. If you own a $500,000 home near your high-paying job in Manhattan, you’d expect to pay a lot in taxes.

Twenty of the 21 highest-taxed counties were in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut, the survey showed, and most of those were tightly clustered around New York City, according to the Associated Press.

The Pennsylvania counties shouldn’t be that high on the tax list. The median home price in Chester County is $229,000. In Montgomery County, it's $263,000. In Berks County, it's $138,400. So why are Pennsylvania homeowners paying so much?

Good question for Ed Rendell, who promised to cut property taxes for every Pennsylvania homeowner by 30 percent when he first ran for governor in 2002. After nearly four years in office, Rendell has failed to deliver one dime in property tax relief.

U.S. Census data released last week showed that homeowners in every state but Alaska spent more of their incomes on housing costs last year than at the start of the decade, the Associated Press reported. You can review the full breakdown of taxes by county at the Tax Foundation's Web site,
http://www.taxfoundation.org/

It's noteworthy that 15 of the Pennsylvania counties on the list of counties where homeowners pay the highest property taxes were among the 18 counties that Rendell won when he was elected governor in 2002. Yes, only in Pennsylvania can you lose 49 of 67 counties and still be elected governor.

Why would anyone living in those 15 counties re-elect a governor who broke his promise to lower taxes, increased state spending to record levels, signed a horrible casino gambling bill into law and still can't explain why he supported the July 2005 pay raise? We’ll find out Nov. 7.

Rendell's other truth-challenged claims come in the area of whether Pennsylvania is a good place to do business. Rendell thinks so, but a variety of business publications who have no stake in the governor’s race keep ranking Pennsylvania at the bottom when it comes to business friendly taxes and regulations.

The latest survey comes from Inc. Magazine, which rated the 26 governors up for re-election in 2006. The ratings were based on a star system, with four stars signifying a governor who is "a true friend" to business and whose policies "benefit businesses over the short and long term."

Rendell didn't make that list, but four other governors did. The next level, three stars, went to governors who display "creative and diligent" policies, but still need work. Thirteen governors earned three stars. Rendell didn’t make that list either.

Pennsylvania's governor was awarded two stars by the magazine, reserved for those whose "achievements are mitigated by mistakes, failures or oversights." That sounds a lot like Rendell's Pennsylvania.

It could have been worse. One governor, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, earned one star, signifying "policies have negatively affected entrepreneurs."

Inc. Magazine also ranked the states in several other categories such as technology, health care, unemployment rate, fiscal policy and the cost of doing business. Pennsylvania did not rank high in any of those category, but the magazine singled out the Keystone State as having the highest corporate income tax rate among the 26 states surveyed.

As GOP challenger Lynn Swann so aptly put it during last week's televised debate, Rendell ranks high on rhetoric and in promoting himself, but falls far short in the areas that count: Reform and results.

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