While the big lights in this election year are trained on the marquis names like Bush and Gore, Harrisburg is scrambling in its own inimitable way to get ready for November. Republicans control the House by a whisker and with scandal season breaking out in Republican ranks all over the state the last thing they need is a rowdy Republican advancing liberal ideas.
So leave it to Delaware County Commissioner Wally Nunn, a rowdy Republican if there ever was one to shake up the Harrisburg establishment with a left-wing liberal idea bent on almost doubling personal income taxes in the state.
Wallace H. Nunn is a veteran of the rough and tumble of Delaware County Republican politics. Elected in 1993 to the all-Republican Delaware County Council, Nunn’s views on fiscal policies and taxes make Ronald Reagan look like Mr. Tax and Spend. Preferring sound public policy to good public relations Nunn’s critics call him a conservative curmudgeon to the rest of us he is the essence of sound spending practices in government. That’s why so many of Harrisburg’s Republican elected-class were aghast when he called for upping Pennsylvania’s Personal Income Tax to fund public schools. Conservatives and liberals called it Wally’s Folly.
Maybe, but only in the way that Harrisburg thinks. Today all Pennsylvanians have their homes held hostage to the property tax. On average about 72 cents of every property tax dollar goes to a school district. That’s no accident. The educational establishment knows that right after family comes home and Pennsylvanians will pay to keep their homes. So the local school board’s $5 a month increase here, the $10 a month increase there in the monthly mortgage installment doesn’t meet with a lot of politically potent resistance. Yet with the Sheriff’s auction block always 12 months away our senior citizens, the poor, disabled and those with just bad luck are held hostage to a system that forces them to pay for public education that they don’t need or can’t afford. Pennsylvania’s systems of tax and education are both merciless. Philosophically the taxing education establishment has turned them into pay or get put out. Out of your homes or out of a quality education.
That’s the reality check on Wally’s Folly. Based on fiscal ’98, taking the Pennsylvania income tax from 2.8% to 4.8% would generate in the neighborhood of $4.9 billion. That about $2,700 for every public school student in the state. With the $13.9 billion spent on public education in Pennsylvania last year that’s a straight-line reduction of 35% on our property taxes. Coupled with other educational reforms, like Governor Ridge’s voucher plan, Wally’s Folly could cut homeowners’ school tax burden in the state by half.
However relief for homeowners wasn’t Nunn’s target. His concerns run to the kids in Pennsylvania who get educated by how much their district can afford, minus the mandates and eliminating the digressive elements of politically motivated property assessments. And he’s right. While the educational establishment tries to convince taxpayers that housing values are linked to the quality of education the turn of the circle is true. Sure its true that in the wealthy suburban school districts that touch Philadelphia dolling out $12,000 a kid per year is the norm and houses in these wealthy districts sell for more. However its equally true that in Philadelphia County, that can only afford $6,500 a year per kid while taping text books back together, the high assessments, coupled with the onerous city wage tax, have caused the biggest housing sell off and suburban migration in the city’s history despite the rhetoric of Mayor Ed Rendell.
Wally’s Folly levels the playing field. Those who use the schools, wage earners with kids, pay the most. Those that don’t, especially our senior citizens, get a break and those who need it, the school kids in disadvantaged areas get the chance that they deserve. But with the state setting the stage for a solid stipend that is equal for every one of the 1.8 million public school students in the state the notion that wealthy suburban kids get an education while poor urban kids get tendered in schools diminishes. Someday under Nunn’s system every kid could get at least half a fiscal chance at an education.
The devil of course is in the details. The education establishment with the bureaucrats and the unions added into the political mix of a radical tax shift can be a recipe for the ridiculous rather than reform. But if Delaware County’s Matt Ryan, the Speaker of the House, really wants to hold on to his job, the Republicans have to hold on to their majority. He ought to call his neighbor Wally Nunn and get the details on Wally’s Folly. Its something bold, its something daring, its something called leadership. If the Republicans have any hope of holding on to their majority in November they better get schooled on leadership pretty quick and nobody is better suited to teach bold leadership than Wally Nunn.