ACT 72—The Public Response

June 13, 2005

By G. Terry Madonna and Berwood Yost, Franklin & Marshall College

The most debated state public policy issue of the spring, ACT 72, has ended without clear resolution. It has certainly ended in a way not generally envisioned by the political leaders--the governor and the leaders of the state legislature--who horse traded their way into a complex and controversial piece of state legislation. . The primary issue was the Act’s property tax relief plan and the requirement that the state’s school boards decide whether to opt into it. ACT 72 created a series of tradeoffs for school boards: they would get a measure of property tax relief for the property tax owners of their districts, but they would also surrender some of their fiscal autonomy. Moreover, local voters would have the right to approve subsequent property tax hikes under certain circumstances, creating fiscal uncertainly for school directors. As a result, eighty percent of the state’s school boards have rejected or not opted into the plan, leaving the Governor and the state legislature with policy and political questions to resolve.

Throughout the legislative odyssey of ACT 72 little attention was paid to public. As a result, ACT 72 has no formal process for citizen participation--though many school districts held informational sessions and public forums. Still, the public remained more aloof from the debate than ACT 72’s supporters could have imagined. The June 2005 Franklin & Marshall Keystone Poll provides some clues on what the public thinks at the moment about some aspects of the spring debate and of some possible resolutions to the issue.

There can be no doubt that the residents of the Commonwealth support the expansion of state regulated slot machine gaming. A majority of residents (55%) strongly or somewhat favor the expansion, while slightly more than one in three (37%) are somewhat or strongly opposed. The findings here are consistent with other surveys taken over the past few years.

Pennsylvanians were paying attention to the ACT 72 debate--almost four in five (73%) were aware that property tax reductions were a component in ACT 72. The most prevalent form of public awareness likely came from school board and school district public sessions, media coverage, and contact by the supporters of the opt-in position. Additionally, property tax owners’ themselves were asked to return a form that would have made them eligible to receive property tax relief providing their school district opted into the plan. Although citizens were paying attention to the debate, half (52%) were unsure whether their local district had voted for or against the plan. More than a third (35%) of respondents said their districts had voted against the plan and only a few (13%) said their districts voted for it.

A majority (57%) of residents favor their local school district’s participation in the property tax reduction scheme, with a minority (27%) indicating they oppose participation. Surprisingly, there are no strong regional differences in support of district participation, as often is the case for important state issues. There aren’t even strong party differences. The largest differences in support for district participation are based on political ideology and gender. Conservative voters (52% favor to 33% oppose) are more likely than moderates (57% favor and 28% oppose) or liberals (63% favor and 14% oppose) to oppose their district’s participation in the plan. More men (61%) than women (52%) favor their district’s participation.

Now that most districts have chosen not to participate in ACT 72, the legislature is considering what it should do next. The two most publicly mentioned ideas would 1) mandate that all school boards participate in the property tax reduction program, or 2) allow the voters in each school district to decide whether the district should apply for property tax relief. More respondents were opposed (47%) to a state law mandating their school district participation than were in favor (41%) of the proposal. On the other hand, residents of school districts overwhelmingly favored (80%) allowing the voters to make the decision about whether their school districts should participate in the plan.

Mandating district participation at the state level reveals many expected demographic differences. Most significantly, there are regional and party differences. Philadelphia is the only geographic region of the state where a majority favors the state requiring school district participation, but currently the city is exempt from the opt-in provision in ACT 72. Statewide, a bare majority of Democrats (50%) support requiring participation, but few Republicans (33%) or independents (35%) do.

ACT 72 failed for a host of reasons, but one infrequently mentioned reason for its failure is the fact that the public was largely left out of the debate. The act placed the most significant decisions in the hands of school boards without giving citizens much incentive to get involved. The law probably did not create sufficient tax incentives to ensure an adequate public response, and it was needlessly complicated--two facts that militated against public involvement. These factors probably more than any other considerations kept the public from becoming mobilized. What public debate did occur was without much energy or passion. The end result is that property tax relief--long elusive for Pennsylvania taxpayers--continues to elude them.

G. Terry Madonna is Director of the Keystone Poll and of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Berwood Yost is Head Methodologist of the poll and Director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College. This analysis is taken from the June 5 Franklin & Marshall College Keystone Poll and can used in whole or in part with appropriate attribution.