PA Senate Promises Hearing on Charities Amendment

Jan 29, 2015

Senate leaders have postponed a vote on a proposed amendment to the state constitution, after calls for a hearing on the matter.   

The proposed amendment would restore the Legislature’s power to define non-profits known as purely public charities, which don’t have to pay local taxes. Right now, a court ruling establishes rules for the tax-exempt entities.

The amendment was poised for swift passage, but senators like Democratic Minority Leader Jay Costa voiced concern that it had never received a hearing in their chamber.

“I do think that concerns remain and we have to have real dialogue,” said Costa.

Until a caucus discussion on Tuesday, Republican supporters of the plan seemed to think a hearing was merely a delay tactic for an amendment process already underway. The proposal passed the Legislature last session, fulfilling the first of three steps in the constitutional amendment process. Any problems pointed out in a hearing, said supporters, could not be solved without starting over with a new proposal.

Drew Crompton, spokesman and counsel to the Senate president pro tem, said he believed the proposed amendment to be simple enough so as not to require hearings.

“What the actual piece of legislation does is incredibly clear -- even to the naysayers, I think,” said Crompton.

What’s in dispute is what could happen after lawmakers reassert the power to define and regulate purely public charities.

A coalition of local government groups, emergency workers, and labor unions have grown louder in their opposition to the plan. They fear the amendment would pave the way for large non-profits to lobby lawmakers to be tax-exempt.

Supporters say the sooner the proposed amendment is added to the state constitution, the sooner the Legislature can write more nuanced rules to decide which charities get a pass on taxes based on things like size, mission, and profit margin.

If approved by the Senate and House before March, the amendment could go on ballots in the May municipal election.