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Monday, May 16, 2005

Fast Eddie makes a final stand on Act 72

I’m not sure if Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell should be compared to Gen. George Armstrong Custer at the Little Big Horn or Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo. Either, way, Fast Eddie is making a final stand on his much-maligned Act 72 "property tax relief" measure.

With about two weeks to go until the May 30 deadline for school districts to opt in or out of Act 72, fewer than 50 of the state’s 501 school districts have signed up for the plan. This despite a non-stop propaganda campaign by Rendell and his cronies to persuade school boards that Act 72 is the greatest thing since the Eagles drafted Donovan McNabb.

Not long ago, Rendell used the word "nuts" to describe school board members who didn’t support Act 72. The fact that his own education secretary won’t come within 10 feet of Act 72 hasn’t deterred Rendell as he tries to pull another fast one on Pennsylvania taxpayers.

A couple of weeks ago, Rendell forced school board members to sit through a two-hour teleconference where he and his cronies tried to twist some more arms. That didn’t work, either. Last week, the governor hit the road with a handful of superintendents and other school administrators in a last-ditch effort to drum up support for Act 72.

As of last week, only 48 of the state’s 501 school districts are on board with Act 72. A dozen have already voted to opt out. Most of the rest of the districts have held public hearings to lukewarm response and will formally vote their districts out of Act 72 by May 30. It’s not looking good for Rendell. In fact, some Rendell lackeys in the state Legislature have floated the idea of making Act 72 mandatory. There’s Democracy at work for you. If school boards and the residents they represent are too stupid to see it our way, we’ll force them to join the plan!

The bottom line is this: Act 72, or the Homeowner Tax Relief Act, is a sham. It forces school districts to bet their fiscal future on unknown revenues from the 14 slots parlors planned across the state. Those revenues won’t start trickling in until 2007 at the earliest, but most likely not until 2009 or 2010. Talk about a gamble. If revenues from the slot machines don’t meet projections, school districts will be in danger of financial collapse, unable to raise taxes to pay their bills.

Act 72 is one of the worst pieces of legislation ever enacted. It’s a dead horse that Rendell keeps beating. It’s not getting up.

School officials don’t like Act 72 because it forces them to immediately raise the earned income tax in their district — raising taxes is something Rendell knows about — but it ties school districts’ ability to raise taxes in the future. If a district wants to exceed spending beyond the rate of inflation, it must ask voters for permission to raise taxes. How likely are you to vote "yes" on a tax increase? Especially if you’re a senior citizen whose kids are no longer in school.

Here’s another fundamental problem I have with Rendell’s "gambling-for-property-tax-relief" premise. Seniors on fixed income are hurt the most by property taxes. In order for seniors to see a reduction in taxes, they must spend more of their income at Rendell’s slot parlors. Let’s face facts. Who rides most of the buses to Atlantic City? Seniors. So in order to get back $250 to $300 in 2007, seniors will have to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars into slot machines each year to fund Rendell’s scheme. It’s a sucker’s bet.

That’s why seniors, who attend a lot of school board meetings and tend to vote consistently in elections, have been reluctant to embrace Act 72. School board members have been seeing those seniors in the audience and they don’t want to risk their futures on a governor who may not make it past a first term.

Rendell was sent to Harrisburg with a clear mandate: Reduce property taxes. He hasn’t done it. Rendell thinks he’s going to waltz back for a second term in 2006. But Pennsylvanians won’t forget that Rendell raised the state income tax by $1 billion during his first term, sucking more of the life out of the state’s basket-case economy.

Whether Rendell’s Republican opponent is former Lt. Gov. William Scranton III or state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola or former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann, Rendell shouldn’t make plans to stay in Harrisburg beyond 2006.

If the majority of the state’s school districts opt out of Act 72 — and it sure looks like they will — Rendell’s entire gambling initiative will be exposed for what it is — an opportunity for fat cats to get richer on the backs of seniors and working stiffs who don’t see any prospect out of their economic condition other than to feed the one-armed bandit in a slot parlor coming soon near you. That’s a sorry legacy for Rendell.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at tphyrillas@pottmerc.com

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