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Where do Pa. candidates for governor stand on property taxes?

A recent poll shows voters care about taxes in the race for Pennsylvania governor. Here is what Scott Wagner and Gov. Wolf say about the issue.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, left, and Republican Scott Wagner take part in a gubernatorial debate in Hershey , Pa., Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. The debate is hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, left, and Republican Scott Wagner take part in a gubernatorial debate in Hershey , Pa., Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. The debate is hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.Read moreAP Photo / Matt Rourke

Asked in a recent poll which issue was most important in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, voters' most popular answer was: taxes.

Property taxes have historically been Pennsylvania's most unpopular levy and nearly always a priority for voters. But this year, there's been little heat around the issue in the race between Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, Scott Wagner.

Wagner supports eliminating school property taxes, and as a state senator co-sponsored a bill to do that. Wolf campaigned in 2014 as a supporter of property tax reform or elimination, but has not supported measures to do so — since a budget proposal in his first year as governor to raise the income and sales taxes to replace lost property tax revenue. It was rejected by the legislature.

While complaints about the property tax have a long legacy, "there's no easy solution to it," said G. Terry Madonna, poll director and a professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.

A Franklin and Marshall poll conducted in September found that taxation was the top issue among Pennsylvania voters; 12 percent said they would consider it the most when voting for governor, followed by 10 percent who cited education.

Governors don't have control over property taxes, which are levied by local governments, but the majority of property tax bills are for school districts, and state funding for education can influence whether districts increase tax rates.

A constitutional amendment that voters approved last year made it possible for lawmakers to approve legislation exempting homeowners from paying property taxes on their primary residences. The successful ballot question energized advocates for property tax elimination or reform, but no change has resulted.

The proposal Wagner co-sponsored, known as the Property Tax Independence Act, would increase statewide sales and income taxes — currently 6 percent and 3.07 percent, respectively — to fund school districts while eliminating school property taxes. Wagner has said he would minimize tax increases in part by reducing government spending.

"While he would sign that bill as is if it comes to his desk, he thinks that by first moving to zero-based budgeting, he will be able to find revenue that would allow for the proposed tax shifts in [the Property Tax Independence Act] not to have to be as severe," his campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said in an email.

Wagner has not provided details about the amount by which he would raise other taxes to replace school property taxes, which totaled more than $14 billion in the last fiscal year, according to the state's Independent Fiscal Office.

Wolf, meanwhile, has not supported the Property Tax Independence Act. Does that mean the governor has changed his stance since he campaigned for his first term?

"I would say it's now a sense of realism" more than a change of position, Madonna said. "Once you get into office … you get the full dimensions of the problem."

Wolf has said that expanding the sales tax to include more items could hurt taxpayers, and that it is important to protect school funding.

"Gov. Wolf will continue to work with the legislature to reduce property taxes, but unlike Scott Wagner, he won't burden middle-class families and seniors by taxing groceries, clothing, and retirements," his campaign spokesperson Beth Melena said in an email.

No matter who wins in November, Madonna said, action still depends on the legislature voting for a bill that would change the property tax system.

"The problem," he said, "is coming up with the money to pay for any alternative."