Toomey writes Wolf, jump­ing into fis­cal fight over $100M pri­vate schools bill

The Times-Tribune - - FRONT PAGE - TOOMEY WOLF BY MARC LEVY

HAR­RIS­BURG — U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey waded into a bud­get fight in Penn­syl­va­nia on Mon­day over sub­stan­tially ex­pand­ing state tax­payer sup­port for pri­vate and re­li­gious schools that is stok­ing push­back from pub­lic school ad­vo­cates.

Demo­cratic Gov. Tom Wolf is ex­pected to veto the mea­sure, but Toomey, a Re­pub­li­can, wrote to the gov­er­nor to urge him to sign it and make the case for nearly dou­bling a tax credit pro­gram, in­creas­ing it by $100 mil­lion to $210 mil­lion a year.

Ap­prox­i­mately 40,000 chil­dren are on a wait­ing list for the tax­payer-funded schol­ar­ship aid to help pay their tu­ition, Toomey wrote.

“The ed­u­ca­tional fu­tures of Penn­syl­va­nia chil­dren should not be jeop­ar­dized by po­lit­i­cal games or par­ti­san pol­i­tics,” Toomey wrote. “I urge you to sign this leg­is­la­tion.”

Un­der the 18-year-old Ed­u­ca­tional Im­prove­ment Tax

Credit pro­gram, cor­po­ra­tions and busi­ness peo­ple can ef­fec­tively di­rect tens of mil­lions in tax dol­lars to fa­vored pri­vate and re­li­gious schools. The ex­ist­ing $110 mil­lion pro­gram sub­si­dizes those do­na­tions with a tax credit of up to 90%, mean­ing a do­na­tion of $100,000 may cost the donor $10,000.

Toomey wrote that a few thou­sand dol­lars in schol­ar­ship money can mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween “be­ing trapped in a fail­ing school or hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to pur­sue high­erqual­ity ed­u­ca­tion of their choos­ing.”

Wolf, who cam­paigned for of­fice on rais­ing sup­port for pub­lic schools, still plans to veto the bill, his of­fice said in state­ment Mon­day.

The tax-credit pro­gram lacks ac­count­abil­ity, trans­parency and over­sight pro­vi­sions in the cur­rent law, Wolf ’s of­fice said. In ad­di­tion, Penn­syl­va­nia’s pub­lic schools re­main un­der­funded while the leg­is­la­tion lacks a source of money to fi­nance “such a sub­stan­tial and un­prece­dented fund­ing es­ca­la­tion,” it said.

Wolf ’s of­fice also called Toomey’s let­ter mis­lead­ing, since busi­nesses can still do­nate money whether or not they get a “dol­lar-for-dol­lar tax credit.”

“If busi­nesses are un­will­ing to do­nate to these causes with­out get­ting a sub­stan­tial tax break, that is a de­ci­sion made by the busi­ness, not the com­mon­wealth,” Wolf ’s of­fice said in a state­ment.

The Re­pub­li­can-con­trolled Leg­is­la­ture sent the bill to Wolf ear­lier this month, with votes from just four Democrats. Some Demo­cratic law­mak­ers crit­i­cize the pro­gram as al­ready dol­ing out money to fam­i­lies of means who don’t need the fi­nan­cial help and say the money would be bet­ter spent aid­ing school dis­tricts that are cash-strapped de­spite al­ready high property-taxes.

Some do­na­tions go di­rectly to pri­vate or re­li­gious schools for schol­ar­ships. Some do­na­tions go to mid­dle­man or­ga­ni­za­tions that can withhold up to 20% in ad­min­is­tra­tive costs be­fore dis­tribut­ing the money to the schools.

Fam­i­lies that qual­ify for a schol­ar­ship must re­port $85,000 or less in an­nual in­come, af­ter de­duct­ing about $15,600 per child in the house­hold. In other words, a fam­ily of four that re­ports about $115,000 in in­come can qual­ify for schol­ar­ship aid.

The av­er­age schol­ar­ship amount was $1,815 in the 2017-18 fis­cal year, ac­cord­ing to state fig­ures.

In ad­di­tion to adding the $100 mil­lion in tax cred­its, the leg­is­la­tion would add au­to­matic 10% in­creases in years af­ter a year in which the tax credit is al­most fully sub­scribed and lift the fam­ily in­come el­i­gi­bil­ity limit to $95,000. It also would limit ad­min­is­tra­tive cost with­hold­ing to 10%.

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