Skip to main content

See also:

Discussing the Constitutionality of Per Capita Taxes

They should be protesting Per Capita Taxes
They should be protesting Per Capita Taxes
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania levies a Per Capita Tax, which totals 20 dollars a year per person, on all of its residents over the age of 18 that is both controversial and unpopular. Many Pennsylvania residents feel the tax is a direct tax that violates the US Constitution as the US Congress is only authorized to tax income while case law has developed from a string of taxes used to strip individuals of their rights during various periods of our history, such as poll taxes. Although these sentiments cannot likely be validated as the same Constitutional limitations probably do not apply to the Commonwealth General Assembly, it may be that the Per Capita Tax actually does violent the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This writer had been a resident of Steuben Township, Crawford for the vast majority of my life, yet I began receiving Per Capita bills only a few years after college. In other words, I was not assessed this tax until long after I turned 18 years old. In fact, my older was never billed as a resident of Steuben Township. Only several years after leaving the area did he receive a collection notice for the previous year's Per Capita liability; he had to absorb the cost of certifying evidence that he had paid the tax in his current municipality since it had been submitted for collection. In fact, I have personally known many individuals who have had similar experiences when it comes to the Per Capita Tax.

The Constitutional problem with the Per Capita Tax liability is that it is supposed to be billed to all adults over the age of 18 regardless of income, with a few exceptions for the impoverished as outlined in Pennsylvania tax law. That said, the aforementioned experiences serve as anecdotal evidence that suggest Crawford County, along with other countries, has applied the law unevenly, which is a violation of the Fourteen Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. If the County uses tax records to assess the Per Capita Tax, it can only bill those who have paid taxes, not all residents over the age of 18, as the law requires. Even if additional sources, such as driving records, are used, a complete record still cannot be established as not all residents drive. Meanwhile, there may also be privacy issues in play.

Although a weak policy to certify who is a resident to the so-called "Tax Duplicate" registry exists, there is no proactive procedure in existence to ensure all those, who are required to pay the tax, can be billed. Furthermore, the only source capable of providing a legal and reasonably accurate record of all residents over the age of 18 is a census. Since the Federal Census is taken only every ten years and nonpermanent residents, such as college students and adult children, move in and out of the area throughout the year, a local census would need to be conducted by each municipality every year before each tax-billing season to ensure a reasonably accurate billing. Due to the cost and the impractical nature of this scenario, Crawford Country, as well as all other Pennsylvania counties, cannot within reason assess the Per Capita Tax to each and every legal adult resident as the law requires.

As a consequence, the Commonwealth and its municipalities are violating the Fourteenth Amendment rights of all residents who have been billed. The Per Capita tax is supposed to ensure all residents, regardless of wealth, share in providing the civil services we all enjoy, yet it is an impractical tax that cannot be applied evenly while its current application in places like Crawford County violates the Constitutional rights of all residents who are billed. Consolidating taxes by increasing local income taxes and eliminating the Per Capita Tax may be one solution that can bring the Commonwealth more in line with the expectations explicitly stated in the US Constitution under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.