Sunday, March 23, 2014

Local Hero?

If only finding out the truth were this easy

"What kind of society devotes a huge amount of its resources just to lying to itself?"
                          (Theme of a recent post on the blog Hipcrime Vocab)

Right-wing populism enjoyed a strange and thrilling victory recently in Pennsylvania's York County.  Due to a legislator resigning, a special election was held to fill the post for the next few months.  A wealthy businessman who owns Penn Waste and a trucking company did not like the formal Republican nominee (maybe even more than the Democratic one, who of course didn't have a chance anyway), and not only ran a write-in campaign, but won, with a resounding 47.7% of the vote (in a 14% turnout of registered voters).  This appears to be the first time a legislator has been elected in the Commonwealth in that way.

The new state employee is a libertarian tea-partier who hates government (so why not keep your day job?) and promises to try to reduce the size of the legislature (requires constitutional change, but not a bad goal as ours is huge and the second most expensive in the nation), forgo a pension and free health insurance (pretty easy for a millionaire), and work immediately on the elimination of property tax.  There have been letters in the newspaper every week since the Reagan era expressing a devout wish that this be done, so Mr. Scott Wagner has ready-made support and will campaign for re-election touting this crusade, as un-doable though it will probably be.

Property taxes support public education in the main, and both of these institutions raise the ire of the landed, wealthy elite, both here and now and throughout the long history of aristocracies and oligarchies.  I understand that in France, the resident of any property pays the taxes, which is mighty nice for old-wealth families living off rental income; their law must sound good to self-made American style barons who hold much land and several buildings.  To cover the loss of income from a repealed property tax, Mr. Wagner wants to expand the sales tax to cover now-exempt purchases such as food, prescription medicine and clothing.  Never mind that employees, owners and real-estate investors in outlet malls placed close to the state's borders will lose all those customers who are escaping their states' sales taxes on necessities, but the heck with those losers who live paycheck to paycheck, or on a fixed income, who would be hurt immediately and almost daily by such a broad regressive tax increase.

There is a very serious problem with property taxes poised to rise dramatically in Pennsylvania, one that did not need to happen and which was only partially ameliorated nine years after some of those "smartest guys in the room" pushed the passing of Act 9 in 2001 which increased school (and other public) employees pensions hugely both in the future and retroactively.  In some school districts, so much of the property tax revenue is going to pay for these insane increases, school funding is evaporating while taxes climb each year.  Because there were such good investment returns in the 1990s, it was decided to burn up the surplus by handing it out to current and future public employees.  A few months after the Act's passage, signed by Republican governor Ridge -- yes, that party of fiscal responsibility -- 9/11 happened and everything went south in terms of investment income.  As if all those in charge did not know that stock market bubbles and crashes always happen and upward growth forever is not possible.*    

Mr. Wagner and all the op-ed page letter-writers cite the probably baseless narrative of retirees who live on fixed incomes being forced out of their homes by property taxes.  I think he and his elite class have as much trouble with arithmetic as their honored Rand Paul, the master of Budgets Made of Smoke.  The York County township, Spring Garden, where our new legislator lives is quite posh with lots of homes going for a half-million or more.  The property tax on these is about $13,000 a year, which is indeed high. An average modest retiree-type home in York County would incur an annual bill of around $2380, about what the same home in other mid-Atlantic states would be taxed at (I looked up some in Ohio).  I don't think that larger amount will harm the millionaires any; it's just the idea that a little of their hoard goes to educate the common people's offspring that has them fuming.  Not only could they really care less about the retirees while they cynically stir them up; $2380 a year is not a deal-breaker for anybody unless they're in such bad financial shape already that owning a home is probably too much to handle anymore.  And I guess the spinners of this narrative have forgotten that the state has long had homestead and senior-citizen reductions on property tax easily available for those who qualify.  My grandfather had a pension quite adequate to live on, yet did qualify and used both programs quite happily.


And in Cumberland County, this retiree bungalow would only be taxed at around $1900/year

Mr. Wagner, who chafes mightily at paying his property tax, turned over $90,000 to a local conservative political action group (Citizens Alliance of PA) in 2012 alone.  That, I guess, is a more productive use.  And his Penn Waste company contracts with local governments which handle the administrative work and the billing while awarding a monopoly of all the township customers.  That's much more profitable than finding, serving and billing scattered customers, if he had to compete with other companies in the ideal "free market."

The Wonderful Wizard did no harm with his deception and was relieved to be done with hiding behind the curtain.  Our new local hero's deception reminds me more of Mr. Burns:

*The same fiscally responsible governor who sent out an order during his term mandating free dry cleaning and laundry for all high-level state government officials, which I saw while working on the new Keystone State Office Building.