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You Call This Living?

The home fires keep burning for Santorum

If you have a hard time telling Democrats and Republicans apart -- and who doesn't? -- this may be the test. Democrats are politicians who get drawn inside the Beltway, where they forget about the common guy and his concerns.


Republicans do the same thing...except they collect tax breaks in the process. Or so one might conclude from a little-noted wrinkle in the dispute over whether U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum really lives in Penn Hills.


Officials of the Penn Hills School District, which has paid $67,000 to educate the Santorums' brood at an online "charter school," have formally challenged Santorum's claims of residency. But taxpayers in Penn Hills may not be the only ones with a gripe. The rest of Allegheny County might have a stake as well.


Turns out Santorum isn't paying the full tax rate on the Penn Hills property. As county records show, the Santorums enjoy a homestead tax exemption that effectively taxes their property as if it were worth only $91,000...even though assessors value the property at $106,000. That saves the Santorums about $70 a year in county taxes.


It's not much money, and no doubt the Santorums, in true Republican fashion, are allowing that money to trickle down to the impoverished. Still we have to ask -- again, in true Republican fashion -- what about the principle of the thing?


The homestead exemption is intended for bona fide county residents -- or as county spokesperson Ali Detar puts it, cases when the property is "where the owner intends to reside permanently, not temporarily." Does that description apply to Santorum? He has another home in Virginia valued at $757,000 -- more than seven times the value of the Penn Hills place, which at two bedrooms would be a mite cozy for Santorum, his wife and their six kids. Not to mention the other adult couple using the same property as their voting address.


The homestead-exemption application form asks whether a homeowner "use[s] this property as your primary residence" and whether "you claim anywhere else as your primary residence." (It also includes a warning that "[a]ny person who knowingly files an application which is false to any material matter" must pay back taxes and could "be subject to prosecution as a misdemeanor of the third degree and a fine of up to $2,500.") Copies of Santorum's form have been lost...or rather "they've been difficult to locate," as Detar puts it. But, she adds, "clearly if it's on our system, the information was submitted and approved and the proper documentation was received."


In response to my queries, Santorum's office issued the following statement:


Rick and Karen have been residents of Penn Hills since 1995, when they moved from Mount Lebanon to Penn Hills, to be closer to family. In addition, they pay property and school taxes to Penn Hills and are registered to vote, and do regularly vote, in Penn Hills. Their driver's licenses show their Penn Hills address and their vehicles are registered in Pennsylvania, at the Penn Hills address. Their state and federal tax returns show their Penn Hills address and they send and receive mail at their Penn Hills residence.


Which cynics might well translate as follows:


Rick and Karen know how to cover their ass.


In that sense, Santorum may be a perfect exemplar for Republican values. From George W. Bush on down, Republicans have realized that the more brazen you are about what you're doing, the better chance you have of getting away with it. If you act in complete defiance of the facts, the public often won't notice what the facts are.


We've just witnessed a huge turnover in the president's Cabinet, for example. But one of the few secretaries remaining is the one who most deserves to go: Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld. It's obvious that Rumsfeld has botched much of the mission in Iraq -- from correctly assessing the threat to providing troops with needed armor. But if Bush ousts him, it will prove that the occupation is going badly, just like critics say. Rumsfeld may have failed to armor the troops, but firing him would mean giving their critics ammunition.


Similarly, passing up a homestead exemption might be like admitting you didn't really live there. Acting like you're entitled to things you don't deserve could be the best way to convince people you deserve them. Anyway, admitting mistakes is for Democrats.


That's the other way you can tell the difference.