Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tony Phyrillas: A government exercise in futility

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king who offended the gods. As punishment, he was forced to roll a giant boulder up a hill but before he reached the top, the rock would roll back down. Sisyphus would have to repeat his task for eternity.

The legend of Sisyphus speaks about the futility and hopelessness of some tasks.

If Sisyphus lived in modern-day Pennsylvania, he probably would have been appointed to a tax study commission by his local school board.

All across Pennsylvania, hundreds of volunteers have been meeting to make recommendations to their respective school boards on the best way to levy taxes to fund school budgets.

The tax commissions are a requirement of Act 1, the so-called property tax relief bill the state Legislature came up with after an eight-month special session. Act 1 was promptly signed into law by Gov. Ed Rendell, who went on to proclaim he delivered on his promise to cut property taxes, although his plan delivers rebates to 20 percent of Pennsylvania residents.

As the tax commissions make recommendations to school boards over the next few weeks, it will become apparent to all Pennsylvania taxpayers that Act 1 is one of the biggest scams ever perpetuated on an unsuspecting public by politicians.

Most Pennsylvania residents will end up paying more in taxes under Act 1. One area school district calculated that 73 percent of its homeowners will pay more in taxes under this "property tax relief" plan.

Frequently heard comments about Act 1 at tax commission meetings include: "an exercise in futility," "a sick joke," "a no-win situation," "a dead end" and "two steps up, three steps back."

One area tax study commission reviewed a dozen scenarios for tinkering with the school district's tax rate and concluded that the majority of its taxpayers would be worse off under all 12 scenarios.

Some say Act 1 was a deliberate slap in the face to school districts by Gov. Rendell and the Legislature because more than 80 percent of the state's 501 school districts rejected an earlier "tax relief" plan known as Act 72. Remember last year when Rendell questioned the intelligence of school board members who voted against Act 72?

Could Act 1 be payback by Rendell and the Legislature because Pennsylvania's political aristocracy was forced to confront the property tax issue for most of its last session?

Many school districts are holding out hope that the Legislature will come to its senses and repeal Act 1 once 55 new legislators are sworn into office in January. But the recent election of the same party leaders who pushed through the pay raise of 2005 and Act 72 and Act 1 makes you wonder if anyone in Harrisburg has any clue at all.

If Act 1 is not repealed, taxpayers will have to learn phrases like "back-end referendum" and "front-end referendum." Act 1 will pit elderly homeowners against younger wage earners to see who pays more in school taxes. Act 1 gives voters a chance to say "yes" or "no" to a tax shift from property taxes to an earned-income tax (EIT) or a personal-income tax (PIT). Who is going to vote "yes" to raising their own taxes?

Back to Sisyphus. If voters turn down a recommendation to switch to an EIT or PIT when they go to the polls in May 2007, school districts fall back on the property tax. And even if an EIT or PIT is approved, school districts can still raise property taxes each year. Also keep in mind that renters will never receive a tax break under Act 1. Any reduction in the property tax goes only to low-income homeowners who file the necessary paperwork.

Why are Rendell and the Legislature making property owners jump through rings of fire to get a few hundred dollars in property tax relief? That's a question voters should have asked themselves before re-electing Rendell and so many incumbents to the Legislature.

The only viable answer to the property tax quandary is the total elimination of property taxes under the Plan for Pennsylvania's Future, commonly known as the Commonwealth Caucus Plan. But Rendell and every single Democrat in the state Legislature oppose the plan. The most votes the Caucus Plan received in the last session was 74, all Republicans. A majority of 102 is needed to pass the House.

Gov. Rendell and the Legislature shirked their responsibility by punting the property tax question back to voters. We elect these people to represent us and we reward them handsomely to make decisions. Rendell and the Legislature should not have forced residents to pick their poison with Act 1.

Contact your legislator today and demand they repeal Act 1 and support the Commonwealth Caucus Plan to eliminate property taxes. No more excuses. If your legislator wants to keep his or her job, they have to start doing their job.

Remind them that 2008 will be here in no time and you have a long memory. The job of cleaning up Harrisburg has just begun.

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