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Nov. 7 Ballot Question, courtesy of the PA League of Women Voters with added comments and notes from Linda Lempert, NCJW legislative chair

This question will be on the November 7 ballot:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to permit the General Assembly to enact legislation authorizing local taxing authorities to exclude from taxation up to 100 percent of the assessed value of each homestead property with a local taxing jurisdiction, rather than limit the exclusion to one-half of the median assessed value of all homestead property, which is the existing law?”  Yes or no.

Note:  Did you have trouble understanding the language of the ballot question, which is written for someone who has 18 years of education? Even if you have that much education, the legal jargon is overwhelming.  Homestead?  Why didn’t they just say house?

This amendment modifies the constitutional requirement that all commercial property and homes be treated the same and it would be a first step in any effort to eliminate property taxation for homeowners altogether.

The amendment does not by itself eliminate property taxes, it merely authorizes the House of Representatives to enact implementing legislation giving local taxing authorities — county, municipal and/or school — the option to do so.

Note: Local governments have had the ability for two decades to exclude up to one half of the assessed value of their homes from the property tax.  This ballot question would allow local authorities to eliminate up to 100% of the assessed value.

Note: Revenue from any property taxes eliminated in this manner must be made up through other means: i.e. state income taxes, sales taxes, sewer taxes….

Any alternative tax scheme requiring increases in income taxes and/or sales taxes would necessarily benefit senior citizens living on fixed incomes whose earning days are behind them while putting much more of the tax burden on young working families and in the case of a sales tax increase, on the poor.

Proponents say the amendment would the first step in changing the system so that an inability to pay property taxes could never again result in the loss of homes that people have worked their whole lives to pay for.

Opponents say that the amendment allows taxing authorities to replace a stable tax source (property) with unstable ones (income and sales taxes) that fluctuate with the economy and could be subject to legislative manipulation. Additionally, opponents fear that allowing districts to eliminate property taxation could lead to a loss of local control of education and to a significantly diminishing commitment to public education.

Note* So, what does this actually mean? A yes vote would amend the PA Constitution clearing the way for legislators to totally eliminate the property tax for homeowners.  Although this sounds good on the surface, it would totally strip funds that pay for teachers, police and firemen. As of now, the state funds a little over 40% of any given school district’s budget. That leaves local communities to make-up for what the State doesn’t provide.  Without a way to levy taxes, local school districts will not be able to meet the educational needs of their communities. Providing a way for communities to eliminate property taxes without providing an alternative reliable source of funding for local schools in irresponsible.  Our PA state legislature has yet to pass a responsible revenue source for the  budget as of this date.  Opening the door to totally eliminating property taxes does nothing more than destroy public education.



Why the Judges we vote for in Pennsylvania Courts matter

On September 28, 2017 the Supreme Court of PA issued a landmark decision.  It ordered the PA Commonwealth Court*  to hold a full trial on Pennsylvania’s school funding lawsuit. The Court agreed with the plaintiffs that education funding should be subject to judicial review. It ruled that the courts have a duty to ensure that the state’s school funding system does not violate the state constitution or discriminate against students because of where they live or the wealth of their communities.  This decision is a major help for public schools in PA. This trial will give families the opportunity to share their stories of how the deprivation in school caused by PA’s grossly inadequate and discriminatory school funding system harms children throughout the commonwealth. This trial will shine a bright public light on the absolute failure of the Pennsylvania legislature to provide all school children with the resources they need in their classrooms.

*Here is an abbreviated version of the PA court system. (for a fully informative explanation you can go to this website:

The PA court system is structured like a pyramid with the Supreme Court on top.

The Supreme Court: Beginning in 1684, this court is the highest in the state and the oldest in the nation. The seven justices of this court receive over 3000 requests for appellate review, but take very few of them. Most often the supreme court reviews requests for discretionary appeals from the Superior Court and the Commonwealth Court, direct appeals from a lower court’s decision, and requests to intervene in a lower court’s proceedings.

Commonwealth Court*: The Commonwealth Court (9 judges) was established in 1968 and is unique to Pennsylvania. It is one of two Pennsylvania’s statewide appellate courts. The commonwealth court is primarily responsible for matters involving state and local governments and regulatory agencies. (Commonwealth Court is now charged with holding a full trial on Pennsylvania’s school funding lawsuit) It also acts as a trial court when cases are filed for or against the commonwealth.  Example: League of Women Voters et al v. Wolf (gerrymandering) has been filed in this court.  Any decision of this case will possibly be appealed to the state supreme court.

Superior Court: Established in 1895, it is one of two intermediate appellate courts in PA. The Superior Court is often the final arbiter of legal disputes. There are 15 judges on this court.  Cases are usually heard by panels of three judges sitting in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh, but may also be heard by a panel of nine judges known as en banc (a full bench)

Courts of Common Pleas: These are the general trial courts of PA.  They are organized into 60 judicial districts, mostly following along geographic boundaries of counties. They have anywhere from 1-93 judges, each with a president judge and a court administrator.

Current make-up of the state-wide courts:

Supreme Court:  7 members.  Currently: 4 men, 2 women  5D, 1R ,1 opening for 2017 -10 year term, 2 retentions* – Tomas Saylor (R) & Deborah Todd (D)  No racial minorities

Superior Court of Pa: 15 members. Currently:  3men, 7 women  7R, 3D, 4 openings for 2017 – 10 tear term, 1 retention* – Jacqueline Shogan (R)  1 opening to be filled by appointment until 2019   6 senior judges*  No racial minorities

Commonwealth Court of PA: 9 members. Currently: 3men, 4women. 6R, 1D. 2 openings for 2017, 10 year term.   5 Senior judges.*  No racial minorities

*Retention and Senior Judges: Judicial elections occur in odd numbered years. Common Pleas court judges and appellate justices are elected to 10-year terms and may serve for unlimited terms until they reach the mandatory retirement age  of 75. They may be retained by a simple yes or no vote without ballot reference to political affiliation.  Retired judges may continue to serve the Commonwealth, if approved by the Supreme Court, as Senior judges

The Pennsylvania Bar Association has released its biannual ratings for statewide judicial candidates for 2017.  

The nonpartisan rating system is based on an application submitted by each candidate. Here’s how the PA Bar defines its ratings, which it emphasizes are not intended to construe an official  endorsement (or non- endorsement):

Highly Recommended: The candidate possesses the highest combination of legal ability, experience, integrity and temperament and would be capable of outstanding performance as a judge or justice of the court for which he/she is a candidate.

Recommended: Based on legal ability, experience, integrity and temperament, the candidate would be able to perform satisfactorily as a judge or justice of the court for which he/she is a candidate.

Not Recommended:  Based on legal ability, experience, integrity or temperament, or any combination thereof, at the present time, the candidate is inadequate to perform satisfactorily as a judge or justice of the court for which he/she is a candidate.

Candidates are presented in alphabetical order.

PA Supreme Court (One Vacancy)
Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy, Tioga County (R) – Highly Recommended

Judge Dwayne D. Woodruff, Allegheny County (D) – Recommended

PA Superior Court (Four Vacancies)
Judge Emil A. Giordano (R) – Highly Recommended
Judge Wade A. Kagarise, Blair County (R) – Recommended
Judge Deborah A. Kunselman, Beaver County (D) – Highly Recommended
Judge Maria C. McLaughlin, Philadelphia County (D) – Recommended
Judge H. Geoffrey Moulton Jr., Montgomery County (D) – Highly Recommended
Judge Carolyn H. Nichols, Philadelphia County (D) – Recommended
Craig W. Stedman, Lancaster County (R) – Highly Recommended

PA Commonwealth Court (Two Vacancies)
Rep. Bryan E. Barbin, Cambria County (D) – Recommended (may not be on the ballot)
Timothy Barry, Allegheny County (D) – Recommended (may not be on the ballot)
Judge Ellen H. Ceisler, Philadelphia County (D) – Recommended
Judge Joseph M. Cosgrove, Luzerne County (D) – Highly Recommended (may not be on theballot)
Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon, Delaware County (R) – Highly Recommended
Judge Paul N. Lalley (R) – Recommended
Irene McLaughlin Clark, Allegheny County (D) –  Recommended


Read the list of all candidates and then research all of them.  Check their backgrounds carefully for where their priorities are.  Once you have done your research, decide specifically which candidates will receive your vote and write their names  on your own list before entering the voting booth.. Do not attempt to vote strictly along straight party lines, as candidates are not always listed according to political party on the ballot.    

An excellent source of information on all state -wide judicial candidates is the website for the PA  League of Women voters 2017 election guide: which is very informative. There are a few discrepancies with the list of judicial candidates with that  of the PA Bar Association.



In the Cause of Fair Voter Representation

Two new bills which attempt to fundamentally change the way in which congressional voting districts are drawn have been introduced in the PA state legislature.  One is Senate Bill 822 (SB22)  which has been already described in the previous paragraphs,  and House Bill722 ( HB722) the newest one to be introduced in the House.   The major point of these bills is to remove the already elected PA state legislators, who have a vested interest in keeping themselves in office, from the process of redrawing voting district lines.  An independent citizen’s commission would instead be responsible to redistrict after the 2020 census.   This is no easy feat: it requires a change in the PA state constitution which would entail passing these two bills in two consecutive legislative sessions.

The more recently introduced bill is HB722 (PA House)  HB722 now sits in the House State Government committee which has 11 Democrats and 16 Republicans.  All of these Democrats have co-sponsored the bill;  none of the Republican members of this committee have.  Not surprising.  It will be difficult to get a hearing on this bill, let alone passage out of committee.

However there  are several co-sponsors of this bill, who can help if contacted by their constituents.   State representative Marguerite Quinn of Doylestown area, Thomas Murt of the Upper Dublin area, Gene Digirolamo of the Bensalem area, and Kathryn Watson of Warrington are all co-sponsors of HB722  who have many  NCJW women constituents (all of our members whom live at Meridian!)  Let us all remember to call our state representatives Madeleine Dean, Steve McCarter of Jenkintown and Cheltenham  along with Brian Sims, Vanessa Brown of the center city area to thank them for their support 

Linda Lempert, legislative chair