Proposition 13, adopted by a referendum in California in 1978, was the most notable in a series of relatively recent actions to limit the property tax in the United States, and many experts view it as a watershed in state and local public finance. The property tax in virtually every state is now limited to some degree by statutorily or constitutionally imposed base restrictions, rate limits or revenue limits. These limits have influenced the use of the property tax, and there is substantial evidence that the rate of growth of the property tax has declined. The mix of funding for local expenditures also has changed, as cities, towns, counties, school districts and special districts are relying more and more on user charges, special fees, franchise fees and local option sales and use taxes.
The limits on the property tax also have many policy and expenditure implications. There is evidence, significant in some cases and simply indicative in others, that the property tax restrictions have fostered a variety of policy outcomes in the delivery of services to citizens. Some of these tax limits have affected educational outcomes: reduced the number of teachers in classrooms, reduced the qualifications of individuals entering the teaching profession, and reduced student performance in math, reading and science.
The literature detailing the possible effects of property tax limits on local government also reports the following changes: reduced infrastructure investment by local governments, reduction in the rate of salary increases for public employees, and a shift to state-controlled revenue sources that has led to the centralization of power toward state governments (Sokolow 2000). In this context, property tax limits may reduce intergovernmental competition and the discipline on the growth in government that results. Few observers would disagree that Proposition 13 and its imitators in other states have resulted in substantial nonuniformity in the property tax system (O’Sullivan, Sexton and Sheffrin 1995).
These outcomes illustrate the competing tradeoffs that accompany property tax limits. Depending on individual perspectives these consequences could be considered a plus or a minus. Supporters of Prop 13 and its derivatives want lower property taxes and less government (at least for others), but it is unlikely they also want less government for themselves. David Sears and Jack Citrin (1982) have labeled this behavior the “something for nothing” syndrome.
Therese McGuire (1999) notes that among public finance economists the advantages of the property tax for funding local governments approach “dogma.” In an opinion survey of more than 1300 Canadian and U.S. members of the National Tax Association, 93 percent of the respondents with training in economics favored the property tax as a major source of revenue for local governments (Slemrod 1995). This result probably explains why the World Bank and other international advisory groups are spending significant sums of money and offering assistance to improve and implement the property tax in developing and transitional countries. However, it also presents an interesting dilemma: experts support the property tax but voters want to limit it. Why the conflict?
Advantages of the Property Tax
The property tax provides local governments with a revenue source that they can control and avoids the strings that normally accompany fiscal transfers from a regional, state or national government. The result is local autonomy that allows local governments to select the level and quality of services demanded by local citizens. The property tax is relatively stable over the normal business cycle and provides a dependable funding source to local governments that must balance their budgets. Stability is important for certainty in operating budgets and is critical in the financing of long-term debt obligations.
The importance of a stable revenue source has been painfully exposed during the recent economic downturn in the U.S. State governments that are funded by less stable revenue sources are scrambling to balance their current and future budgets by cutting services and increasing taxes and fees. The fact that the property tax is imposed on an immobile base and is difficult to evade also makes it an attractive source of revenue for smaller governments.
Political accountability is another important element of the property tax. A noted function of a responsive tax system is one that provides price signals, or political accountability, on the cost of government to citizens. Compared to almost all other taxes, the direct and visible nature of the property tax suggests that it scores relatively high in this regard. The case for political accountability becomes even stronger when zoning for land use is included in the discussion. Bruce Hamilton (1975) has demonstrated that the property tax, when coupled with local zoning, becomes a benefit tax that leads to efficient outcomes. The combination of property taxation and zoning is the way many public finance scholars describe the characteristics of local finance in the U.S.
Disadvantages of the Property Tax
On the other hand, the property tax is difficult to administer. It requires substantial administrative effort on the part of public officials to discover and maintain the property records of every land parcel. Even with effective methods to discover property, determining its taxable value has always been a challenge to public assessors. Unlike other sales taxes and income taxes, there is no annually occurring event to place a market value on unsold properties. Assessors must value property as if it had sold. Assessors also confront limited budgets and a finite number of trained experts.
Nevertheless, we want public assessors to value property, land and the improvements to land accurately, and to do so as inexpensively as possible. Fortunately, progress has been made in the technical area of property valuation. It is now common to find large and small taxing jurisdictions using statistically driven valuation processes to estimate property values based on carefully designed hedonic models. The technical advantages of statistically driven appraisal systems in terms of efficiency and effectiveness are substantial.
However, the advantage of accurate and timely property appraisals highlights what I believe is a fundamental problem with the property tax and why it receives such low marks from taxpayers and elected officials. When an assessor conducts a reappraisal, the outcome is likely to increase assessed property values. If there is no reduction in the tax rate that was applied to the old tax base, the local government that relies on the property tax receives a potential windfall. It is not surprising, then, that in such situations the assessor and the assessor’s office are quickly identified as the villains of the tax increase. More importantly, these circumstances are powerful incentives to not reassess property regularly and thus avoid the angry backlash of property owners and voters.
Public finance experts have an expectation that the assessor will follow the legal and professional requirements and value property according to state law and professional practice. But, because of the uncertain political outcome when property is revalued, the assessor may act in self-interest, understandably being more concerned about reelection or reappointment than in ensuring that property is revalued properly. A system has been created that requires a reappraisal process and penalizes any assessor foolish enough to ignore it, but over time such avoidance behavior can foster nonuniformity in the property tax.
Political Challenges and Full Disclosure
We have solved many of the technical problems of property appraisal but not the political problems. Nevertheless, I believe there is at least one viable response to the political challenges: states and assessors can adopt a process of truth-in-taxation or full disclosure. The logic of full disclosure design is simple. A chilling effect on property tax growth is posited to occur when the “real” causes of increased property taxes are exposed to property owners. Helen Ladd (1991) states that full disclosure laws “tighten the link between taxpayer voter demand and local budgetary decisions.”
The standard annual tax notice, common in thousands of local tax jurisdictions, does not create a similar chilling effect. A typical tax notice informs property owners about the assessed value of the property, often a modest percentage of market value, tax rates listed in mills, and the total taxes due. If any increases in the assessed value of properties are not offset by reduced tax rates, the new assessed values create additional revenue for the taxing authority. In fact, elected officials can honestly boast that property tax rates have not changed and thus avoid most of the responsibility for any tax increase. An analysis of the behavior of elected officials in Massachusetts found precisely this type of behavior following several cycles of increases in assessed value due to revaluations (Bloom and Ladd 1982).
A property tax full disclosure law generally proceeds in the following manner. Local taxing districts are required to calculate a rate that, when applied to the tax base, produces property tax revenue that is identical in amount to the property tax revenue generated during the previous year. The rate to accomplish this is often referred to as the certified rate; it is calculated by dividing the new assessed value into the property tax revenue from the previous year. The resulting rate is the rate that, when applied to the taxable value of the taxing jurisdiction, will generate the same amount of revenue as the previous year.
This process forces elected officials to reduce the property tax rate—or at least acknowledge that any increase is their choice. If the elected officials choose not to reduce the rate, a public notice must be given that a tax rate increase is anticipated. The public notice is generally carried in a newspaper with specific requirements about the size, placement and language of the notice. In some states a preliminary tax notice is also sent to the taxpayers before that actual budget is adopted, to announce when and where the particular budget hearings on the issue will be held.
Full disclosure laws are intended to create a system with opportunities for input on property tax rate changes and the subsequent size and mix of government, but not at the expense of informed outcomes (Council of State Governments 1977). Full disclosure laws have the aim of a process to inform citizens and limit the rate of growth in property taxes. Nevertheless, like the property tax, full disclosure laws have not enjoyed universal or even modest acclaim. Researchers hold full disclosure laws in such subdued regard that when studying the implications of property tax limitations they commonly classify states having full disclosure laws among the states having no property tax limits.
It is not surprising that many observers suspect that full disclosure laws have little influence on policy outcomes. In states with full disclosure laws, the property tax increases more rapidly than in states with legally binding limits. This suggests that, because full disclosure laws cannot prevent all growth in the property tax, the strongest antagonists of the property tax and the often single-minded opponents to any growth in government will never find the approach acceptable.
However, I believe that full disclosure laws, like property tax limits, have other positive unintended outcomes. They may facilitate improvements in the administration of the property tax because they create a climate that fosters more frequent property tax appraisals by elected county assessors and more thorough and rigorous intervention on property tax matters by state revenue departments. If I am correct, the result is improvement in property tax uniformity. If this posited outcome is validated, then full disclosure laws can and should be judged beyond their immediate role in controlling the rate of increase in the property tax.
Gary C. Cornia is a visiting senior fellow of the Lincoln Institute this year and a member of the Institute’s board of directors. He is also professor in the Romney Institute of Public Management at Brigham Young University and president of the National Tax Association.
Bloom, H.S. and Helen F. Ladd. 1982. Property tax revaluation and tax levy growth. Journal of Urban Economics 11: 73-84.
Council of State Governments. 1977. 1978 Suggested State Legislation 37. Lexington, KY: Council of State Governments, 125-28.
Hamilton, Bruce. 1975. Zoning and property taxation in a system of local governments. Urban Studies 12 (June): 205-211.
Ladd, Helen F. 1991. Property tax revaluation and the tax levy growth revisited. Journal of Urban Economics 30: 83-99.
McGuire, Therese J. 1999. Proposition 13 and its offspring: For good or evil. National Tax Journal 52 (March): 129-138.
O’Sullivan, Arthur, Terri A. Sexton, and Steven M. Sheffrin. 1995. Property taxes and tax revolts: The legacy of Proposition 13. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Sears, David O. and Jack Citrin. 1982. Tax revolt: Something for nothing in California. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Slemrod, Joel. 1995. Professional opinions about tax policy. National Tax Journal 48: 121-148.
Sokolow, Alvin D. 2000. The changing property tax in the West: State centralization of local finances. Public Budgeting and Finance 20 (Spring): 85-102.