Across Pennsylvania, the practice has long been in place of taxing property to help fund our schools. While the school property tax may have made sense when it was first enacted in the 1830’s, constituents today have been voicing loud and clear that the school property tax is one of the most burdensome and distressing taxes.
Shifting to a fairer way to fund our public schools and reforming property taxes is a topic that has gained significant attention in Harrisburg. However, in some cases with land or property in rural Pennsylvania there are no tax payments to “reform” because a large portion of the property is owned by the government.
In much of the 25th District which I represent, government is the biggest landowner within many school districts. The federal government owns 500,000 acres of Allegheny National Forest in Warren, Forest, Elk and McKean counties. The state government owns even more acres in its state parks, state forests and state-affiliated Game Lands that stretch across Potter, Tioga, Clinton and Cameron Counties.
School districts are not permitted to tax the land owned by state and federal governments. Instead, Pennsylvania pays Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) money to Galeton Area School District (Potter and Tioga Counties), West Branch Area School District (Clinton County) and Cameron County School District. However, the problem is that those state payments are almost never increased.
Local school districts have been forced to increase property taxes year after year, to cover the soaring costs of education. A high school built today can easily cost $30 million, whereas that same school built 30 years ago might have cost $3 million. Yet the state’s PILT revenue hasn’t kept pace.
In 2006 I fought hard to increase the PILT from $1.20 per acre to the current $3.60 per acre. However, it is clear that this amount should be increased once again.
Our state faces a $1.2 billion structural deficit for this fiscal year, which we need to find a way to fix. Governor Wolf has made it clear that he wants $4.5 billion in new taxes this year. But before we consider new taxes, we need to fix existing revenues – including the PILT which negatively impacts hard-working rural Pennsylvanians because government owns much of our land.
In rural Pennsylvania we deserve to be treated fairly – just as those in suburban and urban areas of our state are treated. Increasing the PILT is a vital part of making sure that rural Pennsylvanians are not burdened more than those who reside in more populated areas of our Commonwealth.
Senator Joe Scarnati is currently serving his 4th term in the Pennsylvania Senate. As President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Joe holds the third-highest constitutional office in the State. He was born and raised in Brockway, Pennsylvania and represents the 25th Senatorial District, which includes Cameron, Clinton, Elk, Jefferson, McKean, Potter, Tioga and portions of Clearfield County.