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as seen on phillyBurbs.com

Does not compute
Why did Pa. lawmakers kill 'Tax-Free PC' week?

This is how the state Web site's homepage looked last Monday. Note the link to what was supposed to be a defunct state program.

If you've been holding off buying a computer, waiting for one of those twice annual "Tax-free PC" weeks to roll around so you could save the 6 percent state sales tax, you're out of luck.

The state-funded program - which drew nationwide accolades for being the first of its kind to help state residents afford new computers - is now deader than Windows 3.1.

However, you wouldn't have known it from the homepage of the state's Web site last Monday, which featured the program under its "What's Hot in Pa." links section.

Users who clicked the link, however, were taken to a page that said, "There will be not be a Tax-Free PC Holiday in August 2003 or February 2004 in Pennsylvania." There was no explanation listed and the link was quickly removed from the site after yours truly started asking officials in Gov. Ed Rendell's administration what happened.

"It's kind of funny that they are drawing attention to something they let lapse. It's kind of embarrassing," said Doug Johnson, an official with the Consumer Electronics Association, which lobbied to keep the program alive last year.

But Rendell spokesman Tom Hickey argued, "There is no story. The time to ask why was this stopped was more than a year ago, when the people who started it, stopped it."

Hickey, Johnson and other sources said it was not Rendell, an incumbent Democrat, but former Gov. Mark Schweiker - a Republican - and the state Legislature that quietly cut the program's $10.7 million in funding during budget wrangling in June 2002.

The tax break was eliminated less than a month after Schweiker was quoted in Government Technology magazine praising it.

"This is just one thing that governments can do to foster the purchase of equipment and grow the literacy of its residents so that they become more comfortable and savvy with the presence of technology that makes their lives a little bit easier. It narrows the so-called digital divide," Schweiker told the magazine in a piece called 'Mr. Pupose.'

Schweiker did not return repeated messages last week at his new job, as president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. "We're not going to be able to offer any comment on that," Chamber spokesman Richard Barnes said.

Schweiker's ex-boss, former Gov. Tom Ridge, first offered the tax break in 2000, funding it with $8.3 million in his budget. "Retailers called it a 'phenomenal success'!" Ridge said in his Feb. 5, 2001 State of the State address.

A year later, after Ridge was tapped by President Bush to head up the nation's Homeland Defense effort, Schweiker expanded the program to include tax breaks on computer accessories like printers, scanners and software.

"What better incentive to buy a computer, upgrade or get connected than no sales tax? That's 6 percent off your bill - an average savings of $100," a press release quoted Schweiker as saying before the final week of the program on Feb. 17, 2002.

The sales tax holiday boosted computer product sales an average 60 percent statewide and generated new sales that would not have taken place otherwise, said Johnson, senior director of technology policy for the national Consumer Electronics Association - the nation's largest trade association of high-tech companies.

"We did a study that showed almost 1 out of 10 Pennsylvania residents took advantage of the holiday when it was offered," Johnson said, adding the success here prompted Vermont, South Carolina and Missouri to start their own programs.

Johnson said his group, which represents 1,200 high-tech companies nationwide, lobbied legislators to keep the program even if it was limited to one weekend a year. However, "they let it lapse and there's not been an effort to renew it."

Hickey, Rendell's spokesman, said the program isn't in this year's $16.9 billion budget, nor are there any plans right now to resurrect it.

"The governor took office in an unprecedented budget crisis," Hickey said. "There's simply no money. The governor had to make cuts straight across the board, from drug and alcohol assistance to $240 million in operating costs.

"At this point, we don't have a revenue source to make up for it," Hickey said, adding Rendell "is focused like a laser beam" right now on getting his own education and tax reforms passed.

HELP RESTORE TAX-FREE PC WEEK

  • To e-mail Gov. Rendell, click here.
  • To write your state legislator, click here.
  • To sign an online petition, click here.

Dave Ralis' Pave The Grass column appears on Mondays. You can send him an e-mail at  or call him at 215-269-5051. To read his previous columns, click here.

Aug. 24, 2003