The Uniformity Clause

There has been a lot of discussion as a result of last year’s re-assessment and its effect on taxes. We’re still learning the full impact of these changes. Most of Garden City, but not all, seems to have increased in excess of the 4% tax increase in this year’s overall WSSD budget. Its clear some areas went down, most notably commercial property grew in value slower than residential property, so the tax burden has shifted from commercial properties in the district to residential ones as a result of the re-assessment.

Most of the fixes to taxation proposed in Harrisburg would not help WSSD, which currently has a structural deficit and is spending down its reserve. A few years ago there was a proposal to do away with property tax and have the state fund education. This would obliterate our district and our property values as its unlikely Harrisburg would fund WSSD at anywhere close to the amount our community has been willing to pay for quality education. Pennsylvania’s shown a wanton disregard for education, so leaving it up to them to fund it is a recipe for doom for WSSD. Pennsylvania’s funding for education is so bad – one of the lowest in the country – its facing a lawsuit to force it to provide the education promised in the state constitution.

There’s talk of the state’s fair funding formula for education, but again this doesn’t help WSSD. We are not a poor district and we haven’t had a large increase in the number of students. The fair funding formula doesn’t seem to address the lack of commercial or industrial property, which is the district’s primary funding problem. WSSD is the most residential district in the state. Commercial and industrial properties pay taxes but send no children to school, which is a help to school districts. But noone’s likely to build a refinery or warehouse here.

I’ve written before that many of WSSD’s problems are inflicted by the state. One of the strictest limits – and the one that led to the re-assessment that’s costing us so much – is the uniformity clause in the state constitution,

All taxes shall be uniform, upon the same class of subjects, within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax, and shall be levied and collected under general laws.

Because of this line, Pennsylvania is restricted from most common forms of progressive taxes – such as the graduated income tax. Instead, Pennsylvania taxes have to be levied at a single rate – either the very regressive poll tax I discussed previously or as a flat percent rate. You can’t, for instance, tax commercial property – like an incinerator or warehouse – higher than residential property. You can’t tax those making millions at a higher rate than a waiter at a restaurant. This clause allows for no progressive tax system like the one the federal government has used for decades In 2020 the federal rate ranged from 10% for those making under $9,875 to 37% for those making $518,401 or more. Pennsylvania’s was a flat 3.07% for everyone – from those making $1 to billionaires. Although the federal tax system has become less progressive since the 1970s, in theory those who make more money still pay taxes at a higher rate than poorer residents. In Pennsylvania that isn’t allowed for the state or any other taxing authority in the state.

It seems unlikely the state will take action this cycle to fix these issues. And there’s little local officials can do about it either, as the state has limited their options. Perhaps there will be changes once we get new state legislature districts drawn from the census results. The districts should be drawn fairer than they were in 2010 and population has shifted away from the rural areas of the state into the Harrisburg to Philadelphia corridor, suggesting this region will have more of a voice in future state governments. We certainly need it if there’s any hope of resolving school funding issues.

Categories: Government