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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Tax relief scheme blows up in Rendell's face

Tick … tick … tick … tick … tick

Time is running out for Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts to opt into Act 72 — the shabby excuse for tax relief that Gov. Ed Rendell and the highest-paid state legislature in the country palmed off on the residents of Pennsylvania.

Monday is the deadline to opt in to the program. So far, an overwhelming majority of school districts have opted out of Act 72, a bold move considering the biggest complaint most residents have is about high property taxes.

As of Friday afternoon, 318 districts opted out of Act 72, while just 96 opted in. That’s a better than 3-1 margin against Act 72.

And what does our fearless governor have to say about the snub of his tax-relief plan by such a large number of school board members, many of whom are Democrats?

Rendell says it was a mistake to give school boards a choice in the matter. If he had to do it over again, he would drag the rebellious school board members kicking and screaming into Act 72.

"It's enormously frustrating to me that the school boards haven't seen or recognized what we've tried to do here," Rendell told The Associated Press last week.

But school boards have seen all too well and understand exactly what Act 72 means for their districts: a slim chance at token tax relief years from now if gambling revenues reach a certain dollar amount, while handcuffing elected representatives with back-end referendums that forces them to go to voters every time they need to hire teachers, expand buildings or add programs.

Not withstanding the flaws of Act 72, many school boards have a basic moral problem with funding public education through gambling revenues.

"To prey on the weak and elderly to raise funds that may be returned to them at a later date seems fundamentally and morally wrong, Owen J. Roberts School Board President Barbara L. McMeekin told The Mercury. "In order to receive a few hundred dollars in tax relief per household, each person must lose over $900. People who try to pull off that kind of scam in day-to-day living are known as con artists."

"This is a sham to promote gambling. And that’s it plain and simple," Paul Farmer, a school board member in the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District, told The (Delaware County) Daily Times.

It’s not just gambling that upsets school officials. It’s the smorgasbord of deficiencies in the law. Politicians threw everything but the kitchen sink into Act 72.

Wallingford-Swarthmore School District board member Jon Auritt likened Act 72 to a "Frankenstein" monster.

"What (Act 72) turned out to be was a concoction of gobbledygook in need of an extreme makeover," Auritt was quoted as saying in The Daily Times.

Rendell can hold his breath until he’s blue in the face, but he will never persuade local school officials that Act 72 is anything more than political trickery.

"As far as the hollow tax relief promised by opting into Act 72, most of OJR's residents will pay more in taxes, not less, because they will lose in income tax increases what is gained in property tax reductions," Karen L. Zelley, vice president of the Owen J. Roberts School Board, told The Mercury.

It appears school board members have done their homework on Act 72 and the more they know about it, the less there is to like.

Weatherly Area School Board member Gary J. Makuch told The Morning Call in Allentown that he attended four meetings on the 108-page law and spent about 100 hours analyzing it, but still found it confusing.

"Act 72 is the worst piece of legislation I have seen," Makuch was quoted as saying in The Morning Call.

Rendell has spent much political capital pushing this sorry piece of legislation. He’s lost a lot of support from the traditional Democratic base in the education community. Rendell’s potential GOP opponents in 2006 will certainly exploit the governor’s blind obedience to such a bankrupt scheme.

And here’s something Rendell and his cronies in Harrisburg don’t want you to know: Experts say there about 9 million Pennsylvania residents eligible to gamble, and to reach the $1 billion mark in revenue that Rendell says will result in tax relief for school districts, some $3 billion must be lost at the slots, averaging more than $300 per gambler. But less than 10 percent of those eligible gamble on a regular basis. That means each gambler must lose an average of $3,120 at the slots every year to fully fund the property-relief plan. And the payout? Around $250 to $300 per household. Talk about a sucker’s bet.

Perhaps, it’s a pigheaded governor who hasn’t "seen or recognized" the flaws of Act 72. It might take a wake-up call in 2006 — when Rendell is tossed from office by voters — for the message to finally sink in.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at tphyrillas@pottsmerc.com

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