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Rendell Proposals Leave Many in the Cold

How about some help for the rest of us?

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Well, finally justice has been given unto Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, the long-suffering millionaire from Sewickley. Nice to see the guy get a break for a change.

And that's one Pennsylvanian down, 12,440,620 to go.

Many Pittsburghers haven't noticed, focused as they've been on Mario's martyrdom. But in those off moments when Gov. Ed Rendell hasn't been negotiating a new hockey arena, he's proposed overhauling the state's tax base and transportation system.

Many of these changes would have something in common with Penguins arena deal: Each offers newfangled solutions ... but only for the same old interests. If you're like many City Paper readers -- and more than a few City Paper staffers -- it's hard to get excited by some of Rendell's reforms. Because once again, homeowners trump renters, retirees trump college students, and transit riders are up against the wall.

Start with Rendell's proposal, part of a budget plan that must be ratified this June, to pay for property-tax breaks with a hike in the sales tax. Under the proposal, Allegheny County residents would pay an 8 percent sales tax on consumer goods.

The proposal is aimed at homeowners, naturally, though some argue it doesn't go far enough. Homeowners are still waiting for the property-tax break gambling was supposed to bring ... and much of the "savings" they get will be spent on tax increases elsewhere.

They're right, of course. But what about those of us who don't own homes at all?

Rendell's proposal should play well in places like Upper St. Clair, Fox Chapel and Rosslyn Farms -- communities where more than 90 percent of dwellings are owner-occupied, according to Census data compiled by the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research. But in Pittsburgh, nearly half of dwellings are occupied by renters; several old mill towns have even lower rates of homeownership. Residents there will be paying higher sales taxes with no hope of getting a break on housing costs. (If you think landlords pass tax savings to renters in the form of cheaper leases, you clearly aren't a renter.)

Many of those residents are also facing higher commuter costs. Both Rendell and County Executive Dan Onorato have pledged to find a permanent source of funding for the deficit-riddled Port Authority. But so far, Rendell's solution is a never-before-tried tax on oil companies, who will certainly fight the measure in the legislature and the courts. Former Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy used to get in trouble for proposing budgets with taxes that didn't exist; now Rendell is proposing to pay for transit the same way. In the meantime, transit riders can count on both service cuts and fare hikes: We'll have fewer buses costing more.

Those costs will hit some residents hard, and not just in communities that will lose bus service entirely. According to Census data, in neighborhoods like Homewood, the Hill District and East Liberty, more than half of households have no vehicle of their own. Such neighborhoods depend on transit, and fare hikes will hurt there most.

College students are being left out in the cold as well. Rendell's proposed budget increases funding to state universities by only 2 percent. That means that schools such as Pitt and Penn State -- already the nation's most expensive state-supported university -- will cost even more. Pitt is already threatening big tuition hikes unless the school gets more state aid.

The result: Students saddled with even more student-loan debt. As retirees demand more property-tax exemptions for their homes, debt-mired graduates will find it harder and harder to buy houses in the first place.

Anya Kamenetz's 2006 book Generation Debt cites at least one survey in which three-fifths of college graduates said that their student loans were making it difficult to purchase a home or a car, or to save any money at all. In another survey cited by Kamenetz, one-fifth of college grads said that student-loan debt was delaying their decision to have children.

I know households facing exactly those decisions. I'm in a household facing exactly those decisions. But the politics here are obvious: Pennsylvania is one of the oldest states in the country, and old people have political influence. So do affluent suburbanites.

So what are college students, transit riders and renters to do? We could threaten to move away if our needs aren't met. But I suspect that only works for hockey-club owners.

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