Act 72: The Culprit Escapes Again

As Gov. Rendell campaigns across the commonwealth to encourage school board members to opt-in to Act 72—the Homeowners Property Tax Relief Act—the real culprit (and beneficiary) of ever-increasing school property taxes is resting easy across the street from the Harrisburg Capitol.

The relative silence of the Pennsylvania State Education Association’s (PSEA) political action and lobby machine is deafening—but it speaks volumes about Act 72. Indeed, the absence of the commonwealth’s most powerful and wealthy labor union from the debate over one of the most controversial public education issues in Pennsylvania is quite telling.

The reason is simple: Act 72 does little to shut off the spigot of taxpayer cash flowing into the PSEA’s coffers. Last 4th of July, when lawmakers decided Pennsylvanians would have to gamble for a few hundred dollars in property tax rebates, Act 72 was supposed to provide taxpayer protections by giving voters a say in future school tax increases. However, the law’s loophole-ridden referendum provision will do little to restrict the labor union’s access into citizens’ wallets.

Although the PSEA wants us to believe that it represents the best interests of children and public education, the union’s rhetoric rarely matches reality. Instead of pursuing the educational interests of our kids, the union’s number one priority is to secure larger and larger amounts of taxpayer money for itself.

By focusing its resources and energy on unionizing school employees, negotiating compulsory dues agreements into collective bargaining contracts, electing school board members, and lobbying policymakers, union operatives at all levels of government work diligently to protect and expand their financial well-being and political power. The PSEA understands that Act 72 will do little to hinder those objectives.

In fact, the only law that significantly impacted the labor union in the last couple of decades was Act 84 of 1988. But instead of limiting the undue influence of the PSEA, that landmark law granted labor unions the power to compel dues or fee payments from employees as a condition of employment. Previously, the union had to earn members’ support.

Unsurprisingly, compulsory unionism led to the massive expansion of PSEA “membership” from 80,000 in the mid-1980s to more than 170,000 today. Although the union bills itself as a “voluntary” association, it is one of the few organizations where employees who refuse to join are still forced to pay hundreds of dollars in fees every year. And it is compulsory unionism’s artificial growth in union members and money that has resulted in the PSEA’s extraordinary power and influence over local school tax decisions today.

With hundreds of full-time employees, regional offices throughout the state, those aforementioned 170,000 members, and an annual income exceeding $75 million, the PSEA runs a political machine of union operatives and activists that is virtually unrivaled by any other special interest group in Pennsylvania. And since salaries and benefits of public school employees and, indirectly, union officials are paid for by taxpayers, the union has strong incentives to push for higher taxes.

Although the PSEA competes for taxpayer dollars with other special interest groups at the state level, the union has a virtual monopoly of influence over local taxation units of government—school districts. In contract negotiations, local PSEA affiliates secure increasingly larger amounts of taxpayer money via higher property taxes from either complicit or compliant school board members. While some board members have withstood the union’s strong-arm tactics at the bargaining table, most have not.

Consider the evidence: In the nineteen years before the compulsory union act of 1988, property taxes grew 12 percent faster than the concurrent rate of inflation. However, in the thirteen years following Act 84, local property taxes for schools increased 149 percent faster. Clearly, compulsory unionism provided the PSEA with the financial and political power it needed to significantly boost school property taxes—as well as the union’s bottom line.

Pennsylvania taxpayers now fund one of the most expensive public school systems in America. Yet despite some of the highest per-student revenues in the nation, our public schools continue to run a deficit in academic performance. Whether achievement is measured by SAT scores or the state’s basic skills tests, more dollars have failed to produce more scholars in our commonwealth.

Of course, Act 72 was not intended to improve educational outcomes or even change Pennsylvania’s public education funding system. But the reason the PSEA has idled its political and lobby machine in the Act 72 debate is because the Homeowners Property Tax Relief Act will merely be a small bump in the tracks for the labor union’s taxpayer-funded gravy train. That engine will be revved only when policymakers attempt to pass a law that substantively addresses the root cause of Pennsylvanians’ property tax crisis.

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Matthew J. Brouillette, a former teacher and public school board member, is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, an independent, non-profit research and educational institute located at the foot of the Capitol in Harrisburg.