Pennsylvania Capitol

The east side of the Pennsylvania Capitol building is seen from across the State Street Bridge.

THE ISSUE

With school officials citing the costs associated with special education, pensions, charter schools, health insurance and construction projects, LNP’s Alex Geli reported July 6 that all but one of the county’s 17 school districts are raising property taxes for 2019-20. The increases range from 1.22% in Octorara Area (which straddles Lancaster and Chester counties) to 3.54% in Penn Manor. Warwick is the only school district that is not hiking taxes.

Just past the halfway point of 2019, it’s a good time to look back on the LNP Editorial Board’s wish list for this year.

We are pleased to see progress on numerous items, such as state and local efforts in battling the opioid crisis; financial help for Pennsylvania’s volunteer fire companies; assistance for our state’s farmers; and fast-tracked legislation that allows Lancaster County municipalities to bar video gambling machines from truck stops within their borders.

We are less pleased at the lack of progress toward a retroactive window to allow survivors of child sexual abuse to seek justice in Pennsylvania civil court. And we are appalled that the climate crisis remains more of a political football than a nonpartisan legislative priority. Our leaders and lawmakers must come together without haste to enact and support strong initiatives to protect our environment.

And then there’s the item on our 2019 wish list that just sits there, the ignored elephant in the room. We wrote of the urgent need “for our state lawmakers to work hard and swiftly on Pennsylvania’s intertwined broken systems of educational funding and local property taxes. There must be an aggressive timetable to fully implement the bipartisan fair funding formula for all school districts. And, regarding property taxes, there must be relief for all (especially senior citizens) who receive these oft-crippling annual bills.”

We understand this topic is extraordinarily difficult, but it cannot be ignored any longer.

LancasterOnline reader reactions to the tax increases in 16 Lancaster County school districts highlight the ongoing frustration:

— “I cannot believe this. My school taxes rose more this year than ever in the past few years.”

— “Taxes are still increasing with the same ol’ rhetoric.”

— “It is not fair that only property owners foot this bill. We are not an endless supply of money.”

All great points. Legitimate grumbles.

It’s a broken system.

Fingers are pointed every which way. Taxpayers direct some of their ire at schools. But those officials’ hands are tied.

“School officials say the slight increase in state funding hasn’t kept up with rising costs,” Geli wrote. “That ultimately leaves taxpayers responsible for making up the rest.”

“There really isn’t revenue elsewhere to seek,” added Chris Johnston, the business manager for Penn Manor School District.

But here’s another group that can’t seek revenue elsewhere: our seniors on fixed incomes. Too many senior citizens who must pay property taxes are being crushed by them. They simply cannot continue to bear the burden of funding schools.

So many groups are truly between a rock and a hard place.

The group that shouldn’t be stuck is our state lawmakers.

They are the ones with the power to effect change. Our state government structure, in fact, requires them to be the ones who take action.

PA Post’s Ed Mahon recently outlined five reasons our school property taxes are so difficult to eliminate. They include: the reality that other taxes would have to rise; the oversized burden, compared to most other states, that Pennsylvania would have to shift away from property taxes; the numerous influential groups that would oppose change; the lack of support from Gov. Tom Wolf; and the fear of backlash in the wake of any seismic reform.

It’s a headache-inducing rundown.

The state personal income tax and/or sales tax would have to rise to offset an elimination of property taxes. Business, unions and even school boards could be vocal and formidable opponents. And our lawmakers would likely fear for their reelection prospects while navigating this minefield.

The relative safety of the status quo is what we’re fighting on this issue.

“While I think the system is rotten at the core, it’s pretty well been in effect since at least the 1830s,” state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, told PA Post. “I think people are naturally afraid of change, and this is not a small change. This would be an extraordinarily massive change.”

We grant that. We grant all of the headaches and obstacles.

Still, there is no excuse to do nothing.

Good people must come together and solve this.

We appreciate the work by lawmakers — including several from Lancaster County — to chip away at the edges of school funding shortfalls in recent budgets. But it’s not enough. For the schools. Or for property owners.

LancasterOnline commenter Steve Siegrist believes we can ultimately point the finger at ourselves for the lack of action. Have we been loud enough? Persisent enough? Have we created an avalanche of demand for property tax reform — one that would give Harrisburg no choice but to enact sweeping change?

“The voters keep sending the same legislators back to Harrisburg,” Siegrist wrote. “The party committee members won’t even give us alternatives. At election time, they promise relief but can’t get around the influence of the special interest groups. Plenty of time to add unfunded mandates and kiss babies, but the hard issues of property taxes, oversized government, unfunded pensions, etc., are too hard.”

We must make it “too hard” for Harrisburg to keep ignoring this issue.