The carnival has left Harrisburg

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Summer is carnival season in Pennsylvania.  Those raucous noisy, sometimes cheesy fairs with their rides, sideshows and gimmicky games got their seasonal start last week in Harrisburg.  Though this one wasn’t in a County park, its mid-way ran right up the Capitol steps.  The general assembly juggled a dozen items affecting local governments, and like they do when the carnival leaves their own towns, municipal officials all over the state heaved a sigh of relief when this show shut down.

     Ridge’s school voucher program rode the roller coaster of discontent.  Even voucher lite an attempt to at least get the educational choice program over the first hill had its ticket pulled in the Senate.  Growing Greener, the administrations’ attempt to have the state co-opt local zoning wandered around the house of mirrors growing and shrinking from one hallway to the next.  Philadelphia Senator Vince Fumo did his magic act and made the new $400 million stadium for the Phillies actually disappear.  But in an obscure appropriations sideshow, Montgomery County House member Robert Godshall ran a wheel of fortune that could have cost townships and school districts all over the state millions.

     Godshall represents an area of central Montgomery County that doesn’t have a major tourist attraction, yet he chairs the House Committee on Tourism and Development.  He has targeted municipal amusement taxes for a 60% reduction over 5 years.  He must have a good pitch because he managed to convince 108 House colleagues to play a game they can’t win.  At least if they want to be re-elected.

     Harrisburg strictly controls the types of taxes and fees that townships and boroughs can impose on taxpayers.  Typically the tax menu limits them to ten options with capped rates.  The least popular provide the most reliable income with property taxes averaging 66% of revenue.  Amusement taxes usually only provide 2% of revenue unless you happen to host one of the state’s larger attractions in your neighborhood.  Sesame Place in Bucks County and Dorney Park in the Lehigh Valley drop an average of $600,000 a year into their school districts.  According to a study from Penn State’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, Amusement Taxes bring in about $8 million a year to local governments and nearly $5 million to school districts.  It’s an easy tax to vote for because aside from golfers, bowlers and people who buy tickets to carnivals most local folks don’t pay it: the tourists do.

     “It’s an onerous tax” Godshall said of the 10% Municipal Amusement Tax.  Translating that into some vague notion that if tourists paid four cents on a dollar instead of a dime to get into Whitewater Kingdom in Allentown or Kinneytown Park near Pittsburgh, the state’s tourism dollars would grow proportionately.  Lower the taxes by 60% and some day 60% more people will come.  “It all balances out” he said.  But if it brings 60% more traffic that would require 60% more police time and generates 60% more trash, then Godshall’s moves are a classic carnival prize — nothing you’d want to bother taking home.  If the numbers on this wheel had come up wrong in the Senate the big losers would have been the local taxpayers who have bet on the reliability of this revenue for more than 40 years and would have been forced to pick up the difference.

      But in the hue and cry of Harrisburg’s Recess Carnival ’99, the big barkers were heard and Godshall’s plan got lost in the crowd.  After school choice came clattering to a halt, Growing Greener grew more expensive and Senator Fumo made the Phillies stadium magically re-appear the Senate shut the smaller sideshows down and adjourned.  Municipal officials can now relax and enjoy summer the carnival has left Harrisburg and their revenue is secure, at least until fall.