Reexamining the Property Tax Exemption

H. Woods Bowman, Julho 1, 2003

Government-owned property is exempt from local taxes almost everywhere in the United States, but this situation is based less on logic than on now-outdated historical considerations. Remarkably, there are no comprehensive estimates of the value of these exemptions. For comparison, the value of property tax exemptions for nonprofit institutions (excluding houses of worship) was about $900 billion in 1997, and charitable properties (including hospitals and universities) accounted for about $500 billion of this figure (Cordes, Gantz and Pollak 2002, 89). Even without comprehensive data, it is clear that the amount of government-owned land is vastly greater than nonprofit holdings. However, the exempt status of government land barely provokes complaint (except in the western states where federal landholdings are enormous) whereas exemptions for nonprofit organizations are frequently challenged.

Historical Background and Federalism Today

Government-owned property traditionally has been exempt from taxation in order to avoid an empty ritual whereby the sovereign taxed itself. The implicit assumption of a single sovereign was quite reasonable in Elizabethan England, where the property tax first took root, but not so in the U.S. today. The myriad school districts and special districts that now compete with counties and municipalities for property tax revenues were virtually nonexistent in the nineteenth century. Today there is no economic reason to exclude all government property from the tax base.

Exemptions for private, nonprofit entities grew out of the government exemption. In the seventeenth century, private parties did not always wait for the Crown to repair their bridges, causeways, seawalls or highways. They assumed this responsibility whenever self-interest required and the purse permitted. The capital-intensive nature of such activities that relieved government of a burden made a property tax exemption a logical tool for encouraging private initiative. Thus the first charitable exemptions were a type of quasi-government exemption, subsidizing private parties who discharged public responsibilities.

Charitable exemptions for the alleviation of poverty began as a separate category, because reducing poverty was not originally considered a government responsibility. The change in this attitude over time had the effect of diminishing the distinction between alleviating poverty and relieving government of a burden, but these remain two separate bases for the charitable exemption. Before the New Deal of the 1930s, U.S. counties had the primary governmental responsibility for poor relief, through maintaining almshouses and work farms. The principal public expenditure required for them was for land and construction, since the residents did the day-to-day work of running these facilities. In this situation, a property tax exemption made sense. If a charitable organization did not build such a facility, the responsibility would fall to county government and would be funded through property taxes. It was easy to see a clear and convincing connection between the alleviation of poverty, relief of a government burden and a property tax exemption.

Modern U.S. federalism has undermined these connections. There is no single sovereign now, but rather 87,000 units of government, including 19,000 municipalities, 16,600 townships and towns, 3,000 counties, 13,700 school districts and 34,700 special districts, which often overlap in complex ways. The property tax is virtually the sole source of internally generated revenues for school districts and special districts. A government exemption can be administered so that no unit of government need pay taxes to itself, while taxpayers outside the taxing jurisdiction who benefit from the property would pay the tax.

Valuation of unique government property and infrastructure is a problem, but it is not insurmountable. A new addition to generally accepted accounting principles requires local governments to carry on their balance sheets the depreciated value of their physical assets, including infrastructure, which can be a starting point for valuing such property. Already local government property is taxable in 11 states, provided it lies outside the owner’s boundary. For example, a reservoir owned by a water district can be taxed by the town or county where the reservoir is located, and the tax can be collected through increased water rates charged to the utility’s customers.

The strong consensus in favor of exempting government property is due to inertia, power and precaution. The federal government has vast landholdings, collects no property taxes, and therefore would oppose any tax on government property. Besides, the Constitution shields it. State governments also have extensive holdings and do not benefit from property taxes to any significant degree, so they too would oppose taxing government property. Local governments, special districts and school districts would be the net beneficiaries if government property were taxed, since their own property holdings are small in comparison to federal and state governments, yet the property tax provides almost 40 percent of their revenue (U.S. Census Bureau 1998).

Charitable Exemptions as Sovereign Exemptions

As long as government property is exempt, the case for charities is strengthened. Evelyn Brody (1998; 2002) argues that the states, by conferring benefits of sovereignty on nonprofit institutions, are acknowledging the underlying independent, self-governing nature of those institutions. “Tax exemption carries with it a sense of leaving the nonprofit sector inviolate, and the very concept of sovereignty embodies the independent power to govern” (Brody 1998, 588). Under federal tax law, neither charitable institutions nor local governments are taxed on net income, contributions or interest income from bonds, but both are taxed for payments made for services rendered. Considering charitable nonprofit institutions as quasi-sovereign allows us to make sense of “the rules in the tax scheme that operate to curtail rather than enhance the economic strength of the charitable sector. After all, rival sovereigns rarely feel comfortable letting the other grow too powerful” (Brody 1998, 586).

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Walz v Tax Commissioners, 397 U.S. 664 (1969), supports the position taken by Brody: “[Exemption] restricts the fiscal relationship between church and state, and tends to complement and reinforce the desired separation insulating each from the other (emphasis added).” Churches, and by extension other nonprofit institutions, are sovereigns in their own domain, which is circumscribed by a higher sovereign—state government.

Conversely, arguments used to attack certain charitable exemptions can also be applied to the governmental exemption. Critics of nonprofit tax exemption focus on large, property-rich and financially strong organizations, calling them commercial enterprises (Balk 1971; Hyman 1990; Gaul and Borowski 1993). This category includes colleges, universities, hospitals and nursing homes. No state prohibits charities from engaging in commercial activities, but 8 states out of 43 responding to the survey described below prohibit charities from earning a profit, even for institutional purposes. All states prohibit the charitable owner of exempt property from distributing profit to private parties. “It is a well-established principle of law that a charitable institution does not lose its charitable character and its consequent exemption from taxation merely because recipients of its benefits who are able to pay are required to do so, as long as funds derived in this manner are devoted to the charitable purposes of the institution” (American Jurisprudence 1944).

Commercial enterprises of local government are generally tax exempt, including air and marine ports, electric power generating facilities, water treatment and distribution plants, golf courses, package liquor stores and parking garages, to name a few. If commercial activity is to be the test for taxation, this should be applied evenhandedly and extend to government property as well.

A Survey of State Charitable Exemptions

Every state exempts charitable property, but the meaning of “charitable” varies quite a lot because its legal antecedents are traceable to the English Statute of Charitable Uses of 1601. Policy makers have shown considerable ingenuity in adapting an ancient law to modern needs, and ingenuity breeds variety. A Lincoln Institute-sponsored survey explored the laws in each of the 50 states to clarify the definition and application of “charitable” property tax exemptions.

As befitting a sovereign, private nonprofit institutions enjoy a constitutionally protected tax exemption in almost as many states as do local governments. The constitutions of 38 states make reference to exemption of local government or private institutions, or both. States have probably been reluctant to define charity statutorily because the judicial branch is the final arbiter of constitutional matters. Four states authorize legislatures to grant exemptions without giving specific direction; only 9 (including all 6 New England states) are silent. Specific exemptions are mandated in 27 states, and are discretionary in 16. Arizona, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina and Virginia are in both categories because they mandate some exemptions (usually governmental) but give their legislatures discretion with respect to other classes of institutional property.

Only 10 states have statutory definitions, and they show very little similarity (see Figure 1). Four of them define charity in terms of a public benefit, two in terms of relieving government of a burden, and one (Florida) could be placed in either category. Other individual states define charity in terms of relief of poverty or deriving income in the form of donations, or simply by listing exemption-eligible activities, with a slight overlap with relief of poverty. Five state definitions (Florida, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania) are extremely broad, which essentially punts the issue to the judicial branch.

The lack of a discernable pattern in judicial opinions arouses suspicion that courts must work backwards from a desired result to develop standards and tests. The situation today parallels the first half of the twentieth century, when bureaucrats and judges were gatekeepers to the nonprofit sector, approving or denying a petition for a nonprofit corporate charter, and they “used their control to promote the causes they believed in” (Silber 2001, 6). Awarding a nonprofit charter is now a ministerial act, but property tax exemption for charitable purposes remains subject to a variety of state laws with idiosyncratic judicial interpretations in every state. Confusion in the public debate over the charitable property tax exemption is the sure result. In devising tests, courts sometimes conflate public benefit with relief of poverty, and the result is unenforceable. Either one or the other must take precedence. Unless statutes are clear, courts are free to choose and to switch back and forth.

The case of hospitals is illustrative. Although one will find exempt hospitals in every state, the law is ambivalent. Hospitals have constitutional protection in only 3 states, while in 17 they are exempt only because the court regards them as “institutions of purely public charity.” The famous 1985 decisions in the supreme courts of Utah and Pennsylvania that undermined hospital tax exemption were health care cases. The courts concluded that the hospital (Utah) and the consortium of hospitals (Pennsylvania) were not in fact charities. Without putting too fine a point on it, the judicial remedies were based on the principle of relieving poverty.

Much angst and legal conflict could be averted if relief of poverty could be treated as separate and distinct from public benefit and relieving government of a burden, and fortunately it can be quantified. If a legislature wants a particular type of institution (e.g., hospitals) to relieve poverty, then the state should tax the hospitals, but award each property owner in the group a tax credit equal to the amount of service they give away up to their tax liability. This proposal raises the thorny question of how to measure the value of services priced below market, but the problems are surmountable (see Bowman [1999] for a method for hospital services). Solutions to these complexities are not likely to introduce the element of arbitrariness that pervades judicial decisions today.

H. Woods Bowman is associate professor in the Public Services Program at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. He was a visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute in 2001 and he contributed to the Urban Institute book, Property Tax Exemption for Charities, edited by Evelyn Brody (2002).


American Jurisprudence. 1944. Taxation 51 § 602.

Balk, Alfred. 1971. The Free List: Property Without Taxes. New York: The Russell Sage Foundation.

Bowman, Woods. 1999. Buying charity care with property tax exemptions. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management vol. 18, no. 1 (winter): 120–125.

Brody, Evelyn. 1998. Of sovereignty and subsidy: Conceptualizing the charity tax exemption. Journal of Corporation Law vol. 23, no. 4 (summer): 585–629.

_____. 2002. Legal theories of tax exemption, quasi and real. In The Property Tax Exemption: Mapping the Battlefield, Evelyn Brody, ed., 145–172. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Cordes, Joseph J., Marie Gantz, and Thomas Pollak. 2002. What is the property-tax exemption worth? In The Property Tax Exemption: Mapping the Battlefield, Evelyn Brody, ed., 81–112. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Gaul, Gilbert and Neill A. Borowski. 1993. Free Ride: The Tax-Exempt Economy. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel.

Hyman, David A. 1990. The conundrum of charitability: Reassessing tax exemption for hospitals. American Journal of Law and Medicine vol. 6, no. 3: 327–380.

Silber, Norman I. 2001. A corporate form of freedom: The emergence of the nonprofit sector. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce. 1998. Statistical Abstract of the United States 1998, table 500 (reporting 1995 data).

Figure 1: Statutory Criteria for Charitable Organizations

Arizona requires “qualifying charitable organizations” to spend at least 50 percent of their budgets on services to state residents who receive “temporary assistance to needy families benefits or low income residents…and their households” [A.R.S. § 43-1088 G(2)].

In Florida, “Charitable purpose means a function or service which, if discontinued, could legally result in the allocation of public funds for the continuance of the function or service. It is not necessary that public funds [actually] be allocated, but only that such allocation is legal” [F.S. §196.012]. Houses of worship are exempt under a separate statute.

Hawaii defines charitable purposes as “community, character building, social service, or educational nature, including museums, libraries, art academies, and senior citizens housing facilities qualifying for a loan under the laws of the United States” [H.C.A. § 246-32(c)(2)].

In Montana charities must accomplish their activities “through absolute gratuity or grants” [M.C.A. § 15-6-201(2)(a)(i)].

In Nebraska charities must operate “exclusively for the purposes of the mental, social, or physical benefit of the public or an indefinite number of persons” [R.S.N.A. § 77-202(1)(d)].

A New Hampshire charity is one that performs “some service of public good or welfare advancing the spiritual, physical, intellectual, social or economic well-being of the general public or a substantial and indefinite segment of the general public that includes residents of the state of New Hampshire…” [R.A. § 72:23-1].

In North Carolina, “A charitable purpose is one that has humane and philanthropic objectives; it is an activity that benefits humanity or a significant rather than a limited segment of the community without the expectation of pecuniary profit or reward. The humane treatment of animals is also a charitable purpose” [N.C. Gen. Stat. § 105-278.3(d)(2)].

Pennsylvania requires: (1) relief of poverty; (2) advancement and provision of education, including secondary education; (3) advancement of religion; (4) prevention of treatment of disease or injury, including mental retardation and mental disorders; (5) government or municipal purposes; or (6) accomplishment of a purpose that is recognized as important and beneficial to the public and that advances social, moral, or physical objectives” [10 Penn. Stats. § 372].

A South Dakota public charity “must receive a majority of its revenue from donations, public funds, membership fees, or program fees generated solely to cover operating expenses; it must lessen a government burden by providing its services to people who would otherwise use government services; it must offer its services to people regardless of their ability to pay for such services…” [S.D.C.L. § 10-4-9.1].

Texas defines charity by reference to the type of activity such an organization undertakes. T.T.C. § 11(d) lists 19 activities, including: (d)(1) “providing medical care without regard to the beneficiaries’ ability to pay…”