Pa. Senate Democrats call for special session on property tax reform

    Senate Democrats are calling for a special session on property tax reform in an effort to get more eyes on the issue. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

    Senate Democrats are calling for a special session on property tax reform in an effort to get more eyes on the issue. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

    Pennsylvania’s Senate Democrats are calling for reforms to the commonwealth’s long-standing system of using property taxes to pay for public schools.

    It’s an initiative that’s renewed nearly every session. But now, the group is calling for a special legislative session.

    School property tax collections this fiscal year are in the range of $14 billion.

    The system has long been criticized for allowing the state’s wealthiest school systems to collect far more tax money than their lower-income peers.

    State Senator Lisa Bosola (D-Lehigh) initiated the call for a special session on the issue. She also called for one 2002, but it was unproductive because the then-governor wasn’t on-board. Boscola said this year, there’s more consensus — at least on the issue’s fundamental points.

    “We do agree that the current funding system needs some kind of reform,” she said. “It’s not fair. It’s antiquated. And it needs to be addressed.”

    Gov. Tom Wolf hasn’t confirmed whether he’ll consider a special session, though a spokesman said Wolf “looks forward to working with Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly during the budget process to eliminate or reduce property taxes in a way that is equitable and avoids increasing taxes on food, clothing, and other essential items.”

    Separately, there’s already some legislation in the works. State Sen. David Argall (R-Berks) plans to sponsor a bill that would replace the property tax with hikes to sales and income taxes.

    The same bill — Senate Bill 76 — was narrowly defeated in the Senate in 2015. Opponents argue it makes school funding less stable, gives tax breaks to big businesses, and most importantly, doesn’t address the problem of funding inequality.

    The current proposal would maintain the same funding levels districts were already receiving under the property tax system. If that level was already low, it would stay low.

    Argall said it doesn’t matter to him whether a reform bill comes out of a special session or out of a regular one, so long as it makes it to the governor’s desk.

    “I’ve seen some special sessions be very effective, I’ve seen others that were complete failures,” he added. “It’s definitely a mixed bag.”

    Argall said he’s confident SB76 will make it out of the Senate this session. Its potential fate in the House is still an unknown.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.