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Tax relief bill gives and takes

This strikes me as a case of robbing Peter to pay Peter.

A Republican senior citizen legislator from Lebanon County wants to eliminate the much-maligned school property tax in Pennsylvania, but his idea of replacing it with a new tax on retirement income has gone over like the proverbial lead balloon, especially in the Times News area.

Frank Ryan, 68, originally said he would file the bill soon, but now he wants to wait until he gets assurances from senior citizens across the state that they are on board with his proposal. Ever hear of waiting until hell freezes over?

Ryan proposes taxing retirement income, excluding Social Security, with a 4.92% levy. At this time, retirement income is not taxed in Pennsylvania.

Ryan’s proposal would add a new 1.85% local personal income tax that would go to school districts and bump up the current 6% state sales tax to 8% with the other 2% going directly to schools. As for renters, Ryan’s bill would compel landlords to pass the savings to them.

Although Ryan’s idea would exclude Social Security from taxation, the whole notion of substituting one tax for another doesn’t play well in Lehighton, Tamaqua or Walnutport.

My unscientific survey of 30 seniors in these areas, who have retirement income aside from Social Security, found just three who would be willing to pay a tax on this income in exchange for not paying school real estate taxes, and four others who were uncertain as to how they felt. The other 23 were “strongly opposed.”

For his part, Ryan thought that announcing the plan would be viewed as almost universally negative, but he now says that he has been “pleasantly surprised” by the willingness of those over the age of 65 to at least give his proposal a fair airing.

He also acknowledged that most of the negative pushback has come from the Lehigh Valley area.

Among those I surveyed, most said they are on fixed incomes and they have no children in school so they don’t see why they have to assume an equal burden with parents who do.

Most education defenders insist that it is the duty of all adults to help support their communities’ schools to help ensure our future as a nation of educated adults who can compete in a global marketplace.

This is just the latest attempt to address the property tax, and, just so we are clear, this bill, as most others, would not eliminate the property tax for municipalities and counties. Granted, both of these combined generally do not equal the amount taxpayers fork over annually to support schools.

In 2015, a school property tax-elimination bill, whose main sponsor was state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill and Berks, failed after then-Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, a Democrat, cast the deciding vote to break a 24-24 tie vote in the Senate.

In Pennsylvania, the lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate but votes only in the event of a tie.

I commend Argall for not giving up. As you are reading this, a panel of state Senate and House legislators, including Argall, Sen. John Yudichak, D-Carbon; Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Lehigh and Northampton; and Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, is wrestling with proposals on how to come up with alternatives to the onerous school property tax.

“I can’t go to the grocery store or to a Cub Scout event without someone asking me when we’re going to get rid of this rotten tax,” Argall said. “I have worked with many other senators to scrap school property taxes and create a dollar-for-dollar replacement.”

Boscola calls settling the issue once and for all as her “number one priority.”

Argall said the goal is to look for ways to move this difficult issue forward — sooner, rather than later — but he admitted that there are strong headwinds from special interest groups.

Argall’s 2015 proposal, which failed by a whisker, included higher state income and sales taxes to make up for the elimination of school real estate taxes.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com