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Talk cheap on property tax reform

As surely as Pennsylvania General Assembly legislative sessions come and go, so does the issue of property tax reform.

Property tax reform jumped out of its state capital slumber again on Jan. 7 as Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson, was speaking with reporters.

Scarnati, acknowledging that deciding such a large, complicated issue during an election year is difficult, said, nevertheless, that having a floor vote on the issue seems warranted since many senators have for years advocated action to reform the property levy.

Not just the Senate: The state House of Representatives has had bouts with the issue for decades as well, without anything major coming about.

State property owners are dealt a dose of optimism until they realize eventually that what they received again was nothing but a governmental placebo.

For decades, state lawmakers never have been able to figure out how to guarantee a pot of money to replace the revenue currently being derived from the property tax.

Talk is cheap regarding property tax reform when there is no legislative stomach for increasing the state income tax, adopting a severance tax involving the Marcellus Shale gas drilling industry, or upping or expanding the state sales tax.

Beyond that, some past property-tax-reform proposals have contained a provision for reintroducing that tax under certain circumstances — meaning that the re-enacted property tax would be a “new” layer of taxation built on top of the levies increased to pay for the reform.

The opinion of most taxpayers is that if the property tax is going to be eliminated, the “legislative stake” should remain planted in its heart forever.

Up to now, no Pennsylvania legislative session has been able or willing to guarantee that. However, lawmakers haven’t been shy about duping state residents into thinking that property-tax elimination might be on the horizon.

Much the same occurs regarding reducing the size of the Legislature.

Scarnati’s intent probably isn’t to dupe anyone, but he should not be making implications regarding the possibility of votes in the Senate and House on an issue so difficult that substantial progress has not been able to be achieved even in non-election years.

Granted, the property tax issue has experienced limited progress around its proverbial edges, such as with the Homestead Exemption, but property owners shouldn’t grasp even a morsel of hope that anything substantial is going to take place in 2020, 2021 or anytime soon beyond that.

Taxpayers must keep in mind that Pennsylvania, only during the past two years, has made some progress in resolving its fiscal morass. Barring major courageous action by lawmakers to make the difficult decisions to create a window for property tax elimination, there is virtually no way it can occur.

And, to think major property tax reform can take place while that tax is allowed to remain on the books in any reduced form — just in case — would result in a magic show gone wrong.

“It comes down to tough votes,” Scarnati acknowledged, while speaking about having conversations about the issue with Gov. Tom Wolf.

Scarnati also noted the release of a report last month by a bipartisan Senate-House School Property Tax Work Group; the report outlines five separate plans ranging from cutting the property tax for senior citizens to the total elimination of the tax.

Unfortunately, Scarnati, while not intending to do so, is in fact now promoting a charade.

Pennsylvania taxpayers don’t deserve to be fooled.

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