Editorial: Home alone / Santorum gives up an unmerited exemption

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Sen. Rick Santorum must rue the day he decided to out-source himself to the Washington, D.C., area in order to do Pennsylvania's business. The residency issue is one that refuses to go away -- and for good reason.

The latest example is small in dollars but large in significance. In an attempt to put an end to a controversy about his residence in Virginia, Sen. Santorum has sent a letter to Allegheny County property assessment officials formally requesting that they remove the homestead exemption on the house he owns in Penn Hills.

The exemption excludes $15,000 from the assessed market value of an owner-occupied primary residence -- which entitles an Allegheny County homeowner to a tax break of about $70 a year. The senator says he previously had made similar requests verbally. The letter was sent as Allegheny County Council prepared to strengthen oversight of property owners claiming homestead exemptions (and the ordinance passed 14-1 Tuesday night).

That Sen. Santorum should turn down the exemption is, of course, the right thing to do. Unfortunately, this is not a case of the senator leveling with his constituents. His letter insists that he is entitled to the exemption but he chooses not to take it because of the political furor.

"My home in Penn Hills is my only residence in Pennsylvania and it has always been my primary residence or domicile," he says. That would be news to the neighbors in Penn Hills or, for that matter, those in Virginia where he has settled. After all, where he lives is not in serious dispute. Indeed, the famous campaign ad featuring his children opens with one of his sons innocently confirming the obvious: "My dad's opponents have criticized him for moving us to Washington so we can be with him more."

Regular Pennsylvanians can only marvel at how the commonsensical meaning of primary residence or domicile is mocked here, but it isn't about plain meaning and all about maintaining a legal fiction. Sen. Santorum is pulling a Bill Clinton, who once parsed the meaning of "is" -- only the senator strains the definition of what a primary residence is. Surely it is something more than a place of occasional visits when the Senate is not in session.

At least the taxpayers weren't in danger of being soaked for much -- unlike the other controversy involving his residency, the tuition that the Penn Hills School District was paying to educate his children in a cyber program while the family was living out of state. Sen. Santorum withdrew the children after protests, but the state -- read the Pennsylvania taxpayers -- got stuck with a bill of $55,000 for the tuition.

By comparison, $70 is a trifle, but hypocrisy is not. When he was just starting out in politics, Mr. Santorum successfully pilloried then-U.S. Rep. Doug Walgren for living in Washington, D.C. Why would he think Pennsylvanians have such short memories?



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