Benninghoff betting on property tax relief bill

A proposal to divert more than $2.8 million from state-funded horse racing to school districts with lesser state funding has won the endorsement of Rep. Kerry Benninghoff.

Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, announced plans Friday to co-sponsor the legislation being introduced by Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery.

Here’s how it works: Each school district currently receives varying levels of state funding — some as much as 78 percent, while others as little as 10 percent. That means the per-student state allocations differ from more than $12,000 at the top funding level to $500 at the bottom, according to Benninghoff’s and Stephens’ offices.

Centre County school districts including Bald Eagle, Bellefonte, Penns Valley and State College areas, derive much of their funding through property taxes. Each of the districts receives less than 35 percent of its total funding from the state. The bill would give those districts — as well as more than 208 others that receive less than 35 percent state funding — additional dollars.

There are 500 school districts in Pennsylvania.

That funding would come from a $250 million reallocation of slot machine tax revenue that now goes to the Race Horse Development Fund, a state Department of Agriculture program that promotes horse racing development in the commonwealth.

“Every dollar the state provides for our schools is another dollar school districts don’t have to collect from homeowners through the property tax,” Benninghoff said in a news release. “This is a realistic approach that could deliver dollars for our schools and relief for homeowners.”

If the legislation was approved, Bellefonte Area School District would receive $868,464 in supplemental funding; Penns Valley Area School District would see $387,648; and State College Area School District would receive $1,620,371, according to the measure.

“Our students, schools and taxpayers would benefit from the reallocation of this money,” the representative said.

Stephens is calling the measure the Local Effort Equalization Fund, or LEEF, and targets the Race Horse Development Fund, which has received more than $1.7 billion since its inception, he said. Last year, the fund received $225 million in state slot money.

The RHDF was established eight years ago, according to the Agriculture Department.

“We have a constitutional obligation to fund our schools; not to provide economic incentives for one segment of one industry,” Stephens said. “Rather than funding the pastime of the world’s wealthy and elite, I believe these funds should be used to fulfill our moral and constitutional obligations to our children and to help reduce the burden of local property taxpayers in 211 school districts.”

Benninghoff spokesman Daniel Massing said a co-sponsorship memo was issued Tuesday.

“Standard practice is for a member to send a co-sponsorship memo out, wait a period of time for other members to sign on — which Rep. Benninghoff will do — and then introduce the actual legislation complete with a list of members who have signed on as co-sponsors,” Massing said Friday.

Attempts to reach a representative of the state Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association, which lobbies for funding for the growth of horse racing in the commonwealth, were unsuccessful. However, Todd Mostoller, the group’s executive director, told The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News, “If (the bill passes), there is no industry in Pennsylvania.”

About 18 percent of casino net revenue in the commonwealth goes to horse-racing purses, a till that Gov. Tom Corbett has targeted to divert funds for job creation. That measure never passed the legislative chambers.

According to the state Gaming Control Board, those betting on horse racing spent $776.9 million in 2012, the latest numbers available, according to the GCB’s annual report. Combined gross revenue from casino gambling in the commonwealth was $3.1 billion in 2013, down slightly from 2012.