For especially the past two years an urgency to do something about severe problems with the exploding amount of the school property tax in some Pennsylvania school districts has been a hot topic among an array of grassroots organizations and affected individuals. Early on, intense grassroots support focused on HB76/SB76 (aka HB1776/SB1776 in the previous legislative session), a plan to totally eliminate the school property tax, and shift all school funding to the state by increasing the sales tax from 6% to 7%, covering more goods and services, and increasing the personal income tax 41% from 3.07% to 4.34%, as the only answer to the problem. This was happening as other states are looking for ways to eliminate their income taxes to enhance their attractiveness and fortunes. Confusion.
No matter the outcome, HB/SB76 will be remembered by the tireless efforts of primarily one citizen, Mr David Baldinger, a person with the salesmanship of PT Barnum and the lure of a pied piper of populism. A well organized website, extensive email list, and countless visits to group meetings to sell his concept bore fruit in bicameral, bipartisan, simultaneous introduction of legislation in our state capitol for two straight sessions. Claims are that over 80 grassroots and other organizations now stand behind the idea of total elimination of the school property tax, that is forcing some out of their homes or making it very difficult to sell properties in select areas. “We never truly own our homes” is an often mentioned phrase as well as HB/SB76 “were not bills written in Harrisburg”, and are the “people’s legislation” are all frequently heard at rallies.
For someone like myself, perceived flaws in total school property tax elimination and the shift of all school funding to the state revealed something ugly and disturbing in the conservative grassroots movement. Zealotry could trump discussion and debate. Members of most tea party and 912 groups were expected to be lock step supporters. Mr Baldinger had whipped a frenzy among the ranks that left no room for dissention. When I challenged my own affiliated group to debate internally at a meeting, and even offered to lead the discussion, I was ignored. Alternatives, which I’m prepared to put on the table, could not be considered. There was never room on the agenda for that. School property tax elimination had become a religion, with David Baldinger its reverend, and most grassroots organization members his fiercely loyal congregation.
Those times I did attempt to raise objections with members of supporting groups, I found others who listened, a few who agreed with me quietly, but have also been yelled at, and stomped away from. I’ve heard that one very conservative individual was even threatened for not toeing the school tax elimination line. Inside the capitol legislators have described Mr Baldinger to me as a mean spirited bully.
I see objecting legislators not as agents of large special interests out to get and destroy his bill, as Baldinger would assert, but concerned elected officials who share many of my perceived flaws. Neither Baldinger nor his zealous supporters ever seem to ask or wonder why none of the preeminent conservative professional policy organizations in the state, Americans for Prosperity, the Commonwealth Foundation, or Empower PA, among others, have ever taken more than a neutral position in their support of the school property tax elimination effort. Confusion.
As an alternative to HB/SB 76 Rep Seth Grove introduced HB1189, that would give individual school districts more taxing options to replace or even eliminate the hated school property tax locally. Similar bills have passed in prior years but have never proved successful. David Baldinger offered an analysis of Rep Grove’s bill on his website, shamelessly calling it “simply another fraud being perpetrated on Pennsylvania taxpayers”, a “useless diversion” and a “worthless fraud”. Rep Grove was a RINO enemy of the people who had to go! Usually it’s the political right that derides the left for demonization and vilification of their opposition. More confusion.
Constituent members of the same local 912 group that seems to not want to debate the merits of 76, as I requested, and whose meetings are held in Rep Grove’s district, attended a town hall held by him December 12. One member attempted to ambush the legislator with statements he has made compared to what was on or had been removed from his online presence. I heard few questions to or discussion of the merits of any particulars of his legislation, mostly emotional attacks and attempts to corner the legislator. The focus had become personal.
Demands were presented to support 76 as the people’s bill, which I heard as an expectation of legislators to act, at least on this legislation, as proxies for direct democracy, which ordinarily the conservative grassroots condemns in favor of a representative republic. More confusion.
Another 912 constituent member announced to Rep Grove that he would be a primary challenger in 2014. He tried to entice Grove to come debate property tax elimination at a meeting he will be holding in January along with David Baldinger. Grove said he would not attend what he characterized as the challenger’s campaign event.
At one point in the meeting, Rep Grove explained how HB76 was dead. Because it had been defeated as an attempted amendment to his own HB1189 on October 1, rules of the legislature prevent it from reconsideration by the House, either as an amendment or a stand alone bill for the remainder of the session ending 2014. Only by being substantially changed to something distinctly different could 76 be afforded further consideration, according to Rep Grove. When I called Rep Grove’s office Dec 16, they restated this position, even if the Senate chooses to pass SB76.
Here comes the real confusion. In spite of what happened in the House, Baldinger’s organization, with help from the Pa Association of Realtors and others, are pushing forward with efforts to have SB76 reported out of committee and have it approved by a floor vote in the state Senate.
Monday, December 16, according to citizensvoice.com, Citizens Against Property Taxes of Luzerne County (CAPTAX) held a public meeting featuring speaker Chuck Liedike, campaign manager of Real Reform 76, a pro SB76 project of the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors. A claim was made that 26, or one more than half, the magic number of senators needed, have now signed as co-sponsors of the legislation. Victory, they say, could be right around the corner.
At this point I only know one thing. Either those forging ahead are delusional and ignorant of rules that would prohibit House concurrence on Senate passage of SB76 or the information put forth by Rep Seth Grove is inaccurate and misleading. I guess we shall see.
Note: This post shared to WatchdogWire-Pennsylvania 12/23/13