HARRISBURG Education groups fight property-tax measure

Limiting boards' power to raise property taxes is necessary, some say.
HARRISBURG (AP) -- A variety of education interest groups are mobilizing against a plan by Gov. Ed Rendell and Republican legislative leaders to link revenues from slot machines needed to lower school-district property taxes to rules that make it harder to raise taxes in the future.
But the interest groups acknowledge their crusade may be an uphill battle.
'Back-end referendum'
During a briefing with reporters Tuesday, representatives of constituencies such as school boards and teachers unions said they hope to persuade rank-and-file lawmakers -- and by extension, their leaders -- to abandon a so-called back-end referendum, which would require voter approval of future property-tax increases that exceed a certain threshold.
"Part of [school board members'] job is to ensure a good education program, but also to provide that education keeping the taxpayers in mind," said Tim Allwein, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "We think what [the] referendum will do is shift that balance to a system where the people make decisions based on how it will affect their bottom line."
Supporters of the referendum provision, including Rendell, have argued that limiting school boards' power to increase property taxes in the future is a necessary trade-off for the state's financing lower property taxes through gambling revenue. In Philadelphia, the revenue would be used to offset the city's wage tax.
Time frame problem
But the time frame in which districts would have to present a ballot question for a higher property tax rate creates substantial difficulties, said Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.
School boards would have to finalize their budgets much earlier in the year in order to prepare for a school tax vote to be scheduled on the day of the spring primary election, Himes said.
Their spending plans would be rough estimates at best, he added, considering that the governor's initial proposal for state education aid isn't released until the beginning of February at the earliest, and no education subsidy figures become final until the state budget is passed, usually in June.
"You sort of have to do it somewhat blind because of the fact that you will not know your state assistance," Himes said. "We think that has the potential of setting up a very bad situation."
Certain exceptions
The Rendell administration has also said it favors certain exceptions under which districts could exceed the property-tax increase threshold without seeking voter approval. Property-tax bills that have passed the Senate and House include exceptions such as recovering from an emergency or disaster; to repay loans on school construction projects; or funding new federally mandated education programs.
Most of those exceptions would require court approval, however, which could add even more pressure, especially if taxpayers were to challenge a district's request to forgo a referendum, Himes said.
If the referendum requirement were already in place, nearly 350 out of Pennsylvania's 501 school districts would have had to seek voter approval for property tax increases at least once in the past five years, said Eric Elliott, assistant director of research for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.
"We believe this is fairly strong evidence that the impact of a back-end referendum on Pennsylvania school districts is going to be pretty widespread," Elliott said.
The Legislature is currently in recess for state budget hearings. Rendell has urged lawmakers to pass gambling that would legalize slot machines when they resume their session next month.
"That's a long process; there's no question about it," Allwein said of the time that the lobbying will consume. "We need to make enough people see what a problem the referendum is."