HARRISBURG — Hundreds of frustrated taxpayers boarded buses Tuesday morning to take their demand for property tax relief to the people who can make it happen — the members of the Pennsylvania Legislature.
Gathering early in the morning in empty parking lots across Pennsylvania, residents geared up for the trip to the state Capitol hoping to sway a few more legislators into supporting a bill that eliminates funding public education through property taxes.
Among those huddling near their cars on a chilly morning were a handful of residents from Douglassville who are part of the Daniel Boone Taxpayer Activists, a partner group of the statewide Pennsylvania Coalition of Taxpayer Associations.
“Optimistic? We’ll see,” said Rich Martino, co-chairman of the Daniel Boone taxpayer group.
Martino was just one of at least 300 who turned out to not only rally in support of House Bill/Senate Bill 76 but lobby for more support among legislators.
“It’s a question of trying to sell them on the bill — not just for the taxpayers but to the people of Pennsylvania,” Martino said.
Calling for the abolition of school property taxes in the state’s education funding formula, the bill currently resides in finance committees in both the state Senate and the state House of Representatives. In place of property taxes, the bill institutes an increased a personal or earned income tax as well as a higher sales tax along with a hotel occupancy tax.
Additionally, the bill calls for a reform of the sales tax to close some loopholes and exceptions that currently exist.
The bill is similar to last year’s HB 1776 introduced by state Rep. Jim Cox, R-129th Dist., the primary sponsor of HB 76.
This year’s bill has garnered much wider support in both chambers of the Legislature, with 93 House members signing on to HB 76. A bill needs 102 votes to pass in the House.
“You’ve heard about the 99 percent and the 1 percent over the last few years,” organizer Sam Brancadora told the Berks County supporters on his bus after it left Shillington Tuesday morning. “Well, you’re the 1 percent today. You took the time and paid to get on this bus to be here today. And we’re so proud of you.”
Supporters were handed talking points and packets for their lobbying efforts on the bus. According to the strategy discussed on the bus by organizers from the Berks County Patriots organization, supporters were to split into 10 groups and asked to target assigned legislators once in Harrisburg.
Most of the effort was to be directed toward state senators from Philadelphia and Allegheny counties, where possible “fence-sitters” have yet to publicly support the bills.
“I don’t care where you put them,” said Rod Miller, vice chairman of the Berks County Patriots of information brochures being handed out. “You can put them from the men’s room to Corbett’s desk. We want to carpet bomb the Capitol with property tax reform.”
“I sure hope your efforts are appreciated and someone listens to us,” said Eldon Kibler, another organizer who resides in Leesport.
As the bus’ passengers debarked on the east side of the Capitol, there was some tempered excitement.
“We’re very optimistic our presence here will help change some minds,” said Carol Beitz, from Amity.
Jeff Krystopa, who currently has three children making their way through Daniel Boone School District, skewed to the younger side of the bus riders, Many believe property taxes are “discriminatory” to the elderly.
“I’m going to be old some day and I’ve seen my property taxes double in the last 10 years,” he said. “At this rate, I won’t be able to afford my house.”
Carl Jarboe came from Lebanon County to show his support for the property tax elimination bills.
The owner of a part-time business selling promotional items, he recognized his items might cost more due to a higher sales tax, but he believed it was worth it for eliminating property taxes.
“We should at least try it,” he said. “I’d like to see if it holds.”
Berks County resident David Baldinger, a key figure in the property tax elimination movement who helped Cox craft the legislation, said he was there to help coordinate efforts and personally speak to a few figures he thought might be on the fence.
“I’m very optimistic about everything,” Baldinger said. “I think we have a lot of sponsors already. We just need three more in the Senate for a majority.”
It didn’t take long to add one more to the list of senator sponsors.
State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-19th Dist., told The Mercury Tuesday that he planned to sign on as a sponsor of SB 76 “by the end of the week.”
Dinniman, who is the minority chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee, said he took a closer look at the numbers presented by supporters of SB 76 and now believes there would be adequate funding to make up for the loss of revenue from the property tax. He said bill would be revenue-neutral and fund schools at the same level as property taxes.
Dinniman, who becomes the 25th Senator to support SB 76, said he is optimistic that “there will be some form of legislation” on property taxes. A bill needs 26 votes to pass the state Senate.
“I believe the majority (of legislators) want it done, but it’s up to whether the leaders and the governor do it,” Dinniman said.
Many of those who took to the Capitol to lobby had been there before for the same cause.
“The volume is increasing each time,” said Sen. John Rafferty, R-44th Dist. “It is a great issue and certainly some of us involved in it will make a lot of noise to get it pushed through both chambers and get to the governor for his signature.”
Rafferty said eliminating the property tax would not only help senior citizens on fixed incomes but attract business to the state as a sort of “incentive.”
Around 1 p.m., activists gathered on the Capitol steps for a rally with legislators supporting the bills.
Although there were about 800 at a similar rally last year for HB 1776 and only about 300 this year, Martino said the enthusiasm is still there.
“We’re so close,” he said. “We don’t need much more.”
“The difference this year is there’s not as many people here, but there’s many more people talking about it at home,” said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-150th Dist., a co-sponsor of HB 76.
When word came around that Dinniman planned to sign on, Krystopa said he believed it made the day a success.
“They’re seeing it from our point of view,” he said. “For the representatives that weren’t in their office, every single aide is a homeowner and they’re for it.”
Both Martino and Krystopa said they didn’t get a hard “no” from any of the legislators they spoke with on Tuesday.
Former state Rep. Tom Quigley, a Royersford resident and longtime proponent of eliminating school property taxes, attended the rally after meeting with the Republican Campaign Committee.
“I think again that the (House Select Committee on Property Tax Reform) we had last year was part of the push for this,” said Quigley, a likely candidate for the 146th House District seat in Montgomery County.
“I just think when you look at the co-sponsors this year, in the House they’re up in the 90s,” he added. “That hasn’t been done before.”
During the actual rally, various lawmakers got up to speak and offer their take on property tax reform.
Rep. Margo Davidson, D-164th Dist., who represents Upper Darby, told The Mercury she feels there is a need to “eliminate the property taxes which are crushing people” and that it would make the educational playing field a little more level.
“There’s probably still some work to be done on the bill, but there should be work done,” she said.
Not everyone was convinced of the feasibility of the proposed property tax elimination bills.
One man handed out flyers from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a liberal policy research center that called into question whether more emphasis should be put on increased funding for education as a way to ease the burden on local taxpayers.
Speakers evoked a lot of Revolutionary War imagery during the rally in which the names of every sponsor of the bills in the House and Senate was read aloud in thanks.
Rep. Mark Painter, D-146th Dist., was one of those named.
“This is democracy in action” he said.
With Dinniman joining the sponsors, Painter said “it has to be good” news for the bills, but wouldn’t venture a guess as to how things will ultimately shake out.
“I think (today) just went great,” Baldinger said.
As the rally continued, a pair of gentlemen in suits walked out of the Capitol and toward the street but stopped near one of the women wearing a shirt in support of HB/SB 76.
“Are you here about the property taxes?” one of the men asked.
The woman and the man began speaking with each other and she explained the cause that had her sitting on the Capitol steps.
Eventually, they smiled and parted ways.
Walking down the steps to the streets, the man who asked about the property taxes turned to his friend.
“You know what?” the man said. “That ain’t a bad idea.”