Connections Between Economic Development and Land Taxation

Jeffrey Chapman and Rex L. Facer II, October 1, 2005

Recent court decisions have made economic development and tax policy front-page news. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London raised a public outcry when it allowed local governments dramatic latitude in acquiring private property for economic development purposes. This case had a fiscal aspect as well, for it illustrated how financial pressures can lead local governments to seek alternatives to direct investment for economic revitalization and redevelopment.

Economic development was also the focus of a major lower court decision on state tax policy. In Cuno v. DaimlerChrysler, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Ohio’s investment tax credit, intended to attract businesses from other states, violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Hellerstein 2005). These and other, similar cases raise many questions about the connections between economic development and tax policy.

Is there a relationship between economic development and infrastructure spending?

Infrastructure, that vast network of capital-intensive services including roads, water provision, sewer services, and electrical supply, is critical to current and future economic activity. However, serious economic examination of the link between infrastructure spending and economic productivity only began in the late 1980s. Aschauer (1989, 194–197) argued that declining infrastructure spending resulted in less economic growth. More recently, Bougheas et al. (2000, 520) reported findings that “highlight the importance of infrastructure accumulation” for productivity gains.

Other researchers have pointed out that the most significant recent changes in infrastructure spending have occurred at the state and local levels, rather than the federal level. Gramlich (1994, 1178) argued that federal infrastructure spending has been fairly consistent over time, but state and local spending has decreased. Holtz-Eakin (1993) cautioned that while public expenditures on infrastructure may be important, they may not directly affect economic productivity. He argued that differing state and local needs may account for many infrastructure spending disparities, and that maintenance of existing infrastructure assets may be more important than new spending for capital acquisition. Boarnet (1997) considered efficient pricing for infrastructure use as important as its actual provision.

Nevertheless, the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) is sufficiently concerned about the condition of infrastructure in the U.S. to assign it a grade of “D.” ASCE (2005) argues that the country needs to spend about $1.6 trillion over the next five years to improve the situation.

What is the relationship between infrastructure spending and local tax systems?

The mechanisms for funding infrastructure and its role in state and local spending are complex. Research in this area deals with such topics as fiscal illusion (i.e., when the complexity of the revenue system obscures the true cost of public goods and services) and specific capital financing strategies used to fund infrastructure. However, there has been little research on the impact of local tax structures on infrastructure spending.

Economists have long argued that the value of publicly provided goods and services, such as infrastructure and its maintenance, are reflected in the value of the property served by those goods. Accordingly, a tax that captures the value of these public goods and services may be an important revenue source for funding them. However, in the last 30 years, local governments have moved away from such a tax, the property tax, to other sources of revenue. In many communities, this shift has produced an increased reliance on state aid, local sales tax revenues, and user fees.

In analyzing infrastructure spending in Utah, it is clear that the local revenue structure affects per capita operating and maintenance spending and new capital acquisition expenditures. Preliminary analysis indicates that communities are more likely to increase per capita infrastructure spending when it is financed by property taxes, all other funding sources held constant. It also appears that as per capita sales tax revenue increases, per capita spending for infrastructure services declines.

How constrained are local revenue systems?

One reason that local government revenue structures affect spending on infrastructure is that the states impose various constraints on local revenue sources. Although the past ten years have seen no dramatic changes in the roles of the property tax, intergovernmental aid, or the sales tax in overall local government revenues, the ratio of total revenues to personal income has fallen about 7.5 percent. This real decline highlights the increasing pressure on local governments to identify new revenue sources.

Yet, local governments face serious constraints when they seek to change their revenue systems. States impose intergovernmental restrictions, such as limits on sales tax rates that localities can impose. Less tangible but equally important is political opposition to tax increases. The third factor is the set of tax and expenditure limitations that many states have enacted, ranging from Proposition 13 in California in 1978 to the more recent taxpayer bill of rights enacted in Colorado, which drastically limited increases in government spending.

These constraints have forced local governments to become more innovative in their revenue-raising methods. An entire cottage industry of financial advisors, bond attorneys, and other public and private sector innovators has emerged to help local governments find ways of loosening or circumventing these limitations. Some strategies may have increased economic efficiency, although they give rise to equity concerns (for example, the movement toward the increased use of fees and charges); others are nearly invisible to the taxpayer. In nearly all cases, local governments have been seeking to use land as a revenue-generating device—a trend that shows no sign of abating.

What are alternative ways to finance capital infrastructure?

Two types of debt traditionally have financed infrastructure projects: general obligation (GO) bonds, backed by the full faith and credit of the issuing locality; and revenue bonds, backed by income from the capital project. Both types of debt have significant restrictions on their use, such as voter approval requirements and caps on maximum indebtedness. These debt limitations, the difficulty in raising property taxes, and the fear of political opposition have increased the use of alternative capital finance methods based on land use.

One longstanding method, tax increment financing (TIF), utilizes the increases in property value to help finance redevelopment projects. Originally designed as a financial instrument to eliminate blight and provide affordable housing, this instrument has become increasingly popular in many states for a variety of projects. Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia now allow this technique.

Capturing the property tax increment attributable to government-sponsored redevelopment in order to service this debt makes economic sense if the new development would not have occurred without the formation of the tax district. Moreover, this debt does not have to be approved by voters, but rather by a group designated by the city government. Not even these two factors explain the extraordinary recent growth in the number and size of TIF districts, however, raising suspicion that this tool may be used more often to attract and subsidize economic growth than to eliminate blight. For example, in 2003–2004, California had 33 TIF redevelopment projects, each of which covered more than 6,000 acres, a surprisingly large area to be declared “blighted” in any one jurisdiction (see Figure 1).

Another popular tool in several states is the community facilities district (CFD), which usually funds new development. Landowners within a region form a CFD to issue debt to finance the infrastructure needed to develop raw land. District members’ votes are typically a function of the amount of property each landowner holds. The local government must approve CFDs, although they are not a formal part of the government and their debt issuance is not subject to approval by the general public.

A lien for CFD assessments is placed on each lot in the district, and the CFD tax liability appears on the property tax bill of each district member as a separate line item. Variations of this technique may utilize sales taxes, impact fees, and user charges. Many rapidly growing local governments encourage the formation of these districts to help finance their community’s growth. Nevertheless, CFDs can be very complex, and may fail if anticipated growth does not occur (see Figure 2).

TIFs, CFDs, and other such techniques present an ethical dilemma to local government. Sometimes they are not fully understood by the political decision makers who authorize their use, let alone by members of the general public who will bear the burden of paying this debt in the future. Yet they remain a popular tool to finance crucial infrastructure that is basic to improving the economic well-being of the community.

Could a land tax help finance infrastructure for economic development?

The land component of property value is another potential source of revenue to encourage economic development. Since the supply of land is fixed in the short run, an increase in a land tax will not affect the tax base. However, it will encourage more intensive use of the land and may slow urban sprawl. Unfortunately, the lack of empirical data makes it difficult to determine if this theory is accurate. One example in the U.S. is the City of Pittsburgh, which in 1979–1980 restructured the tax on land to be five times that on improvements. Building activity showed a dramatic increase, although other factors may have contributed to the change as well (Oates and Schwab 1997). Pittsburgh later returned to a single-rate property tax system.

Increased use of a land tax poses significant problems. In particular, accurately assessing land can be challenging, although statistical and econometric techniques may help address this in the future. A second concern is that more intensive use of land value taxation will lead to denser development, exacerbating many of the problems associated with congestion. These effects must be weighed against the positive benefits of reducing long-distance commuting. A third problem concerns equity. Owners whose property has a high land/improvement ratio will face an increased tax liability. This shift might be mitigated by adjustments in the tax rate, special exemptions or targeted tax credits.

A land tax has the important advantages of transparency and accountability. In particular, if land value increases because of government activities, there is strong justification for recovering at least some of those costs through a tax on the land component. We would even propose a name for this additional tax—a positive externality tax (PET). We recognize that, like any proposed increase in the property tax, such a shift would be politically controversial.


Our current research analyzes relationships among economic development, infrastructure, and the tax system. The fiscal problems of local jurisdictions are made more complex by the use of intricate methods of infrastructure financing, such as TIFs and CFDs, to fund economic development. The use of financing mechanisms based on a land tax may be one part of a potential response to this challenge.

Jeffrey Chapman is professor and director of the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University in Tempe. He specializes in state and local finance and administration of financial resources, and has recently published in the area of local land use responses to fiscal stress.

Rex L. Facer II is assistant professor of public management at the Romney Institute of Public Management of the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He specializes in city management, public finance, public management strategy, and public policy analysis.