I read four stories the other day in a Berks County newspaper. See if you can pick out a common theme.
The first, "Preliminary Antietam schools budget calls for higher taxes," is about my local school district, which has raised property taxes every year since Gov. Ed Rendell came to office promising to ease the property tax burden on Pennsylvania homeowners. More on that later.
The next article was "Exeter schools budget calls for 7.8 percent tax hike." I then jumped to "Gov. Mifflin budget would raise taxes" and then read, "Boyertown schools preliminary budget shows tax hike."
All four articles were published the same day. Four school districts. Four preliminary budgets approved. Four significant property tax increases. How can this be?
Gov. Rendell promised to reduce property taxes standing on his head. That's what he told voters in 2002 when he first ran. He then promised Pennsylvania residents that the approval of 51,000 slot machines would bring tax relief. That was in 2004. The following year, he promised that the passage of Act 72 would finally put a stop to runaway property tax increases. The year after that, Rendell promised that Act 1 was the final line in the sand when it comes to those school property taxes.
"This day is a major victory for Pennsylvanians who have fought for decades to have their property taxes cut," Rendell said as he signed Act 1 into law in June 2006. "Every homeowner in Pennsylvania will not only get significant reduction, but they will finally get a say in future tax increases. This bill represents a victory of the possible over politics-as-usual."
What planet is this guy living on? It's been almost two years since the "historic" property tax cuts Rendell promised us and almost every school district in Pennsylvania is raising property taxes, not lowering them.
Even the $1 billion in property tax relief the governor promised would materialize from the casino revenues is a sucker's bet. Some homeowners will get as little as $33 back this year from the casino revenues. Others may see $100 to $200.
Since Rendell signed the casino legislation in July 2004, property taxes have risen dramatically for most Pennsylvania homeowners. Whatever refund money is coming back from the state has already been gobbled up by the local school districts. And then some.
Rendell's promise to give taxpayers a say in future property tax hikes under Act 1 was as hollow as Rendell's initial pledge to cut property taxes by 30 percent standing on his head.
Act 1, which was heralded by Rendell and House Democrats as historic tax relief, is another cruel hoax on Pennsylvania taxpayers. There are no controls over school district spending. How can school districts justify tax hikes of nearly 8 percent when the rate of inflation is under 3 percent?
"School boards will still be able to raise property taxes each year to keep up with inflation — and even more in many communities — but sensible and fair voter controls mean that taxpayers will now have a direct say in the most extreme tax increases," Rendell said in a press release last June. Apparently, the governor's Education Department didn't get a copy of the news release.
Rendell promoted Act 1 as a measure that would give taxpayers greater control over future school tax increases. It's not happening. All 210 school districts that applied for a waiver from the cap in 2007 were granted the exemption by the state. In Berks County, 16 of 18 school districts were granted exemption from seeking voter approval to raise school taxes beyond the inflationary index last year.
Should I believe what Rendell says or the tax bill I'm going to get in the mail soon from my local school district? Somebody is lying. There's a reason Rendell is known as "Fast Eddie."
Every scheme Rendell and the Legislature have come up with over the past five years has failed. The latest, House Bill 1600, is another sham. The only solution to the property tax burden is the elimination of school property taxes. Everything else is a slap in the face for Pennsylvania's beleaguered homeowners.
It's too late to punish Rendell for his dishonesty on the property tax issue. He's safely in office until 2010. But all 203 members of the state House of Representatives and 25 members of the state Senate face the voters this year.
It's time to send a clear message to the political aristocracy in Harrisburg. You have one last chance to eliminate property taxes by passing House Bill 1275 or we, the voters, will do away with your job.