With big school funding plan on tap, Wolf expects $3B per year by cutting sales tax exemptions

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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Pennsylvania state government would reap $3 billion a year under Gov. Tom Wolf's plan to expand a 6.6 percent sales tax to include transactions on 45 categories of products or services that are currently exempt, according to figures released by his administration Wednesday.

The new figures underscore how big a role the sales tax expansion would play in the Democratic governor's plan to pump $3.2 billion a year into cutting school property taxes and providing $2 billion in new aid to pre-kindergarten programs and public schools over his four-year term. The plan, Wolf contends, would help even the education playing field and bring relief to poorer and higher-tax school districts after schools saw deep cuts in state aid under his predecessor.

He also argues that eliminating the exemptions would bring Pennsylvania's sales tax into the 21st century.

Removing the exemptions would be a bigger source of money than either Wolf's proposal to raise the sales tax rate by 10 percent to 6.6 percent and the income tax by 20 percent to 3.7 percent. The tax revenue gained by removing the sales tax exemptions would almost rival the amount of new revenue under Wolf's plan to increase both the sales and income tax rates.

The exemptions he would remove are similar, if not identical, to the ones that Republican lawmakers have sought in recent years as they tried to find ways to cut school property taxes. However, those efforts have met defeat repeatedly, running into opposition from advocates for business and the poor and lawmakers who do not see school property taxes or school funding as a front-burner issue in their districts.

The biggest exemptions Wolf is proposing to remove include a wide variety of recreational pursuits, including cable TV programming, fitness and recreational sports centers and tickets to amusement parks, spectator sports, movies and performing arts. Purchases of non-prescription drugs, candy and gum would be taxed. Also taxed would be personal services — including nursing care, counseling and hair care — and a wide range of professional services, including lawyers, consultants, architects and real estate agents.

It will need approval by the Republican-controlled Legislature, where some leaders are willing to consider a state tax increase for dollar-for-dollar property tax cuts, but are circumspect about increasing taxes to pay for pension obligations and state programs.

"We just want to make sure that every dollar is used for property tax reductions," House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, said last Friday.

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