Eliminating the property tax? It must not happen, but we’ll see what happens.
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Incentive Taxation

Eliminating the property tax? It must not happen, but we’ll see what happens.

Independence? From what exactly?

Recently, an active and conservative member of the Republican Party in central Pennsylvania sent UrbanTools a copy of something called the "Property Tax Independence Act"  (PTIA) with the interesting subtitle of "Liberty Equality and Prosperity".  The legislation – more accurately a proposal for a constitutional amendment in the state of Pennsylvania – Is given a seemingly official sobriquet of “House Bill 1776.” 

As yet, this is not an actual bill however. Moves to eliminate the property tax have been common in recent decades in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.  As a rule, actual elimination has almost never been accomplished.  Some putative tax relief bills and constitutional amendments (such as Proposition 13) have been passed with often mixed – to – disastrous results.  In fact, passionate defenders of Proposition 13 are taking on the tone of bitter-enders who see the writing on the wall

Yet, UrbanTools has always researched and helped implement programs that reduce the pressures of taxation on all strata of society from poor to prosperous.  We also believe that a functioning market system augmented by a stable revenue system to fund government in the end is the best option for government, particularly state and local governments, as federal aid dries up never to return. 

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is indeed a relatively high-tax state:  the nonpartisan Tax Foundation has consistently placed Pennsylvania in the top 10 of state and local tax burden from 2003 to 2009 (last year available). However, blaming the property tax, while popular and certainly reflexive, does not stand up to scrutiny.  Again, using Tax Foundation figures the property tax is a source of state and local revenue is 29.9%. That places Pennsylvania right in the middle of the pack at 22nd-highest, and significantly below the national median of 32.4%.    

 Property taxes are a manifestation of local control 

One of the great unrevealed facts about property taxes are they are a local tax, and if people vote, they can raise or lower them. This April, 2012, the town of Medford voted a higher local levy above the set tax cap.  That’s called democracy, and it couldn’t happen in most places. A  Pennsylvania state legislator or County Commissioner from an area close to a state border like Maryland's is seeing growth from inflow, and greatly increased spending that is contrary to decades of tradition.  We shouldn't be surprised. Yet, most Pennsylvanians live in rural areas with one big town usually serving as the county seat.  It might surprise a citizen of Blair County for example, that the property tax burden in that county comes in at 1,089 out of the nation’s 1,823 counties.  Yes the property tax is a bargain in Blair, Elk, Cameron and many other counties in Pennsylvania. 

Eliminating the property tax will launch these affordable places into uncertainty with a statewide system that will surely not be one-size-fits-all. Looking at every tax is key to understanding the relative lack of competitiveness that Pennsylvania has.  The Pennsylvania income tax is flat and wage-based , it captures revenue even the poorest Pennsylvanians, boosting the state’s ranking to number 16 in the US. The figures also take into account ubiquitous presence of the local earned income tax – again a wage tax – that that is paid in addition to the state levy. 

 The Spirit of 76?

The PTIA puts the blame squarely on Pennsylvania's troubles on the property tax. Other far more harmful taxes are essentially ignored. In fact, the solution proffered to the property tax as it exists is to increase sales taxes first and foremost. The accompanying documentation offered to support the PTIA claims that among other things that cross-border sales jumping will not occur because neighboring sales taxes are higher than Pennsylvania which is 6% statewide. The document does not count local levies, as it does for localities in New York State, thus excluding taxes like Philadelphia’s extra 2% sales tax.  As it stands, Pennsylvania 6% rate is higher than Ohio's 5.5%, the same as Maryland's 6%, New York's state rate of 4%, and who can forget Delaware's sales tax of zero (certainly not shoppers in the six County Southeast Pennsylvania area). The PTIA bill would have to raise about $24 billion a year to replace the school property tax.  

The plan would have to increase the sales tax rate by a least several percentage points. Pennsylvania would become less competitive and certainly would be hardest on small businesses, which have to do their commerce inside Pennsylvania cities, towns, and boroughs.  Among the goods taxed under this program would be food, textbooks, flags, courses and services like trucking, funeral parlors, TV cable veterinarians etc. You get the picture. 

Other States’ Property Taxes 

 An underpinning of the argument to eliminate the property tax is that people are leaving Pennsylvania as we speak because of property taxes. There are a lot of reasons people are leaving Pennsylvania, but it's not likely the property taxes are one of them.  Again, let's go back to the assumption that regional tax competition is a reality.  It is absolutely true that New Jersey has very high property taxes that cause real distress, especially in the face of very high income tax, sales, and corporate taxes. New Jersey is almost an outlier when it comes to all kinds of taxes on investment and work.     

Yet, when one looks nationally at states that rely on one tax more than others, differences begin to appear.  For example, several states that dodged the Great Recession - like Texas, New Hampshire, Nebraska, etc -have historically high property taxes coupled with minimal to no income tax. States that have been historically poor such as New Mexico, Louisiana, and Mississippi have relied to a far greater degree on local and state sales taxes.  Long story short, they have lousy schools, lousy health and are not great places to live.  

Income taxes 

The proposal also proposes swapping out locally controlled/collected taxes which citizens can affect municipal level to a brand-new statewide personal income tax.  The rate is not indicated, yet even a modest one or two point increase on income tax - a keystone of socialist philosophy for over 100 years – will put Pennsylvania, already top-heavy with retirees who pay no income tax, into Connecticut, California and Ohio territory when it comes to high income tax rates. Another view The PTIA offers a 10 point rationale for changing the Pennsylvania Constitution.  Let's look at them one by one.

"Achieve true homeownership" The idea here is that you really don't own your own home because if you don't pay your property taxes you lose it.  Very true, but a non sequitur. If I do not pay my income tax, which would increase under the PTIA plan, I bet I go to jail.  That's true of all taxes not just the property tax.  It also applies to the real world of free markets: if I decide I don't want to pay my mortgage or the loan on my car, those are confiscated by the lenders who have taken a risk on me.  Are the proponents of this bill going to start suggesting that you really don't own your house or car unless we can eliminate the debt you assumed?  This could go to some very strange places.

"Stabilize school funding” The two taxes chosen for PTIA, the income tax and the sales tax are the first revenue sources to disappear during  recessionary times.  It's true in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. The property tax (p.6) is without question stable. As this salient quote from the state Department of taxation in Minnesota indicates: “The three major sources of revenue are the state income tax, sales tax and property tax. The income tax is the most unstable and unpredictable. The sales tax is relatively unstable because it exempts several major categories of personal spending, such as clothing and most services. The property tax is the most stable.” 

 "Help prevent foreclosures" We agree with the authors that residential property taxes during times of financial stress may exacerbate foreclosure numbers, as they are a portion of the big fat true cause of foreclosures: mortgages to banks.; our constructive ideas will show how the specter of foreclosure can be reduced with a simple shift to the land value tax. 

However, taxes as a component of the mortgage are usually 20-30% . Of course, a higher income tax reduces the amount of mortgage one can make to the bank, so the property tax per se was not a direct factor in the foreclosure crisis: unemployment was. 

"Restore plummeting real estate values" Ask a Pennsylvanian in a town like Sharon if the reason real estate values have dropped is because of property taxes, or because the town has lost about half of its population.  The decline of Pennsylvania's manufacturing base has pushed our youth and families to states like Texas and Florida, not taxes. Replacing the property tax would likely produce a capitalization effect for investment properties, which would pay more to convert single-family homes and rental properties. Most Pennsylvanians would not say that's a good thing.   We also suggest that increases in state income tax rates will have a more direct effect on reducing property values

"Boost the sagging housing market" Yes, a straight reduction in property taxes in a vacuum would likely make an area like a neighborhood or block cheaper.  This proposal does not exist in a vacuum; its tax swap from fixed immobile assets to very mobile assets such as sales and wages and other forms of tax on work and investment. 

"Attract businesses to Pennsylvania" low taxation on investment capital indeed would attract business, particularly from high tax states like New York and New Jersey.  Yet the tax penalty on increasing sales and use taxes as well as a tax penalty of a higher state income tax will contribute more drag than lift to the economy. 

"Generate jobs for Pennsylvanians" if the property tax is the second-largest fixed cost for Pennsylvania business owners, as asserted in the piece, then it would have to be explained why job creation throughout the Great Recession (and before) has occurred in Texas more than any other state.  Again, Texas is number one in property taxes as a percentage of property value.  Higher income taxes in geographically defined area have been demonstrated time and again to reduce the amount of employment in that area. In other words, Pennsylvania may run the risk of job loss like Philadelphia over the past five decades. 

 "Create a massive stimulus for Pennsylvania" It is unclear how a stimulus can be created by swapping out one tax for another tax (or taxes) without addressing the expenditure side. The literature on the PTIA produced thus far indicates a revenue swap, with savings going to a very small subset of property owner: the vacant lot or speculative landowner.  All others will simply be paying the hidden tax of the sales and use tax, or alternatively state income tax.  The money NOT in the pockets of property owners cannot create a stimulus much less help small to medium businesses who will  to be groaning under a higher sales and use tax. The numbers don't work.

"Increase personal wealth" See above for most of the answer, but Americans traditionally have not considered a home purchase to be an investment. Only recently, did free and easy credit, skilled marketing by mortgage lenders and the federal government’s quasi-official agencies feed a delusion that one's home is also one's casino.  Home purchase ought to be what Americans traditionally thought it was: a somewhat expensive goal to shelter one's family.

"Stop costly reassessments” This supposed benefit of the PTIA is irrelevant and confusing for several reasons: most counties in Pennsylvania have resisted revaluation for decades. When revaluation does occur, it is with years- long lags, thereby increasing the expense.  Most states and counties across the United States revalue on a fairly consistent basis, with little ongoing cost.  A free market solution to assessments is of course to use Realtors and property insurance databases, which will continue valuing land and buildings, as no logical market can operate without this information.  

An experiment: North Dakota 

The sponsors of HB 1776 point to the one state that is considering eliminating its property tax.  North Dakota is one of the most sparsely populated and agricultural states in the USA.  That state is indeed considering a change to its constitution to eliminate the property tax.  Many in that state are cautioning against a simple (or simplistic) solution. The obvious buffer to eliminate the property tax now is the fact that North Dakota's coffers are now swollen with revenues from gas, oil and other natural resources.  That won't last forever.   Once that party is over, North Dakota will then have to find revenue streams to pay for the basics.  In all the euphoria in Fargo, no one mentions that once property taxes outlawed/proscribed by the constitution then the citizens will become subject to other statewide income taxes, sales taxes, just like HB 1776.  It is hard to imagine the free-thinking North Dakotans would really want more centralized and remote control of their live and business.  It seems hard to imagine that in most of Pennsylvania. the In a sense, perhaps North Dakota should go ahead and do this, so that other states and see what happens. In our federal system, the states are indeed the laboratories of future policy.  Holding up North Dakota has several difficulties in any case.  The differences between North Dakota and Pennsylvania are extreme.  There is no natural – or Commonwealth – resource tax in Pennsylvania, not even the commonly accepted severance tax. The population of Pennsylvania and the infrastructure that exists within is many magnitudes larger and expensive than North Dakota's.  This is apples and kumquats. 

It is absolutely correct that the property tax as constructed is a lousy tax. In Pennsylvania, the property tax falls disproportionately on what people do with their own dimes and their own time. The property tax is actually two taxes as it is a tax on land values and a tax on building values.  The tax on land values is the only tax that collects what a community creates.  What do we mean by that?  It means that with every police department, fire department and yes good schools, land values increase. No individual and no company increases land values on the ground. 

Where we can all Agree

This is the one case where all of us create land value.  The original meaning of Commonwealth essentially said that this place is here for you to make a living, to be a success, to be happy, and to be legally secure in what you have earned with your labor and capital. The other part of the property tax, the tax on buildings and structures is as corrosive to prosperity and freedom is the worst income tax, business tax or sales tax.  As we all know, when you buy a house or fix it up, or build one from scratch your tax liability increases significantly.  On that we can all agree.  

That's why Pennsylvania has the Keystone Opportunity Zone, which is a confused, privileged and preferential way to get out from under a bad tax system. What Pennsylvania needs is to chart a careful yet daring course to a place that encourages economic growth, maintains a reasonable level of government at the most local level possible, and leaves people alone. 

We'd suggest that instead of trading one bad tax for a basket of bad taxes, that Pennsylvania expand on its use of the land value tax, so that we are more like nations that encourage freedom and prosperity like Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong. The land value tax is already used in 20 cities and school districts in the state of Pennsylvania.  In some cities annual property taxes have been reduced for some homeowners by up to 80%, without resorting to other, higher taxes. Instead revenue is provided by land value, an immobile source of revenue which is created by local effort, services and community. 

18 Comments to Eliminating the property tax? It must not happen, but we’ll see what happens.:

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Mike Curtis on Monday, April 23, 2012 2:59 PM
That was an excellent exposition. Thank you for writing it.
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Scott Baker on Tuesday, April 24, 2012 5:40 AM
Excellent analysis. But you left out one other salient feature of North Dakota - it has its own State Bank. This bank collects ALL the tax revenue of the state, makes loans upon it only instate, using fractional reserve accounting, and puts the state needs first, even returning a significant dividend over the years. This too, skews the debate, making property taxes seem less important, for now. It is also worth noting that ND's ample oil and gas fields are owned by large corporations, the same kinds, and in some cases, the same ACTUAL, corporations that benefited from proposition 13 in CA, and would do so again in ND, by being excluded from paying taxes on their vast land holdings. It is telling that Pennsylvania is considering the same sorts of measures just as the Governor is pushing Nat Gas development state-wide. Who is really behind this push then??? It is also telling that Nat Gas is at a 10-year price low, and still falling. It may eventually get close to zero, due to contractual obligations and the tendency to find Nat Gas along with oil, which continues to be drilled due to a robust market for oil, even while the Nat Gas market is cratering. Wells are otherwise being shut, and no doubt the Nat Gas industry would like to hold onto their land, with little tax-cost, until the price climbs back up to a range more to their liking. The timing is very suspicious.
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How to Appeal Your Property Taxes on Friday, April 27, 2012 10:34 PM
Really at present time property tax deduction is major issue for Public and every people wants to take relief from overtax. This information is very help for me. Thanks for gathering such a nice information.
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Property Tax Deduction on Monday, May 21, 2012 2:37 AM
I just wanted to drop you a line and tell you that I really loved this entry. It was full of great information and creativity, both of which we always need.really a genuine post.. thanks
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www.city-data.com on Tuesday, June 05, 2012 5:19 PM
ll continue to search and look forward to being corrected. My gut tells me that, on balance, this plan would be bad for the citizens of the commonwealth, but I'm far from certain. I found much to laud here: Eliminating the property tax? It must not happen, but we
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Matthew Jackson on Tuesday, June 12, 2012 5:38 PM
Thanks for challenging my thinking, but, based on my analysis, the property tax is a far greater inhibitor to free enterprise principles and tax fairness then an incremenetal increase in broad-based SUT and PIT. No bold reform is perfect and there are trade-offs. On balance, though, this act would be usher in a fairer, across-the-board tax structure and spur private growth. Above, you write: "The Pennsylvania income tax is flat and wage-based , it captures revenue even the poorest Pennsylvanians, boosting the state’s ranking to number 16 in the US." In another post, you say that the Personal Income Tax is regressive. That's not completely true in PA, because, as you must know, people who make less than $35,000 do not pay a personal income tax. Thanks for keeping the conversation going. Sincerely, Matthew Jackson
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Joshua Vincent on Thursday, June 14, 2012 11:39 AM
Dear Mr. Jackson – Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on the blog. I agree that on many levels the property tax is an inhibitor of construction and renovation, as well as a barrier to growth. That’s why we think a land value based tax is a better way to go. I always find it interesting that when questioned about what tax would be optimal, free-market champion Milton Friedman replied: “There’s a sense in which all taxes are antagonistic to free enterprise -- and yet we need taxes....So the question is, which are the least bad taxes? In my opinion the least bad tax is the property tax on the unimproved value of land, the Henry George argument of many, many years ago. “Land should be taxed as much as possible and improvements as little as possible.” And yet a liberal economist William Vickery, another Nobel Prize winner said: “Economists are almost unanimous in conceding that the land tax has no adverse side effects. “...Landowners ought to look at both sides of the coin. Applying a tax to land values also means removing other taxes. I think there are protections in the system from those cases where a property tax may be prohibitive. They ought to be expanded to such powerful tools as tax deferral. Yet I still can’t away from the reality that a property tax preponderant state like Texas or New Hampshire prospers, even through recession. They have no income taxes, and little in the way of sales taxes. A state like New Mexico that depends massively on SUT meanwhile has always been last in measures of literacy, poverty, health and overall prosperity. As for the Pennsylvania PIT, I maintain it is statutorily regressive , as the only way a low-income wage earner may be forgiven from income tax is through formal application . Thank you for starting this dialogue, and there is likely common ground here, especially on the expense side, which is fertile ground for debate and public input!

Dan Bradley on Friday, August 17, 2012 2:19 AM
This is actually a comment to Mr. Vincent's reply. While you cited many well-respected economists on the issue of property taxes, and far be it from me to contradict their understanding,I still have to question the legitimacy of taxing land, even without improvements. We have many retired homeowners who purchased thier property when they were employed and the property had a relatively low value. The value of the property likely increased exponentially over the years, but their income in retirement is much lower. There is something inherently wrong with that system. I would also question your assertation that states that depend greatly on property taxes while forgoing other taxes are thriving. I don't disagree with that, but there is no state that is property tax free to make an apples-to-apples comparison of the economic impact. When that happens, then we can discuss the merits of your points.

Marge Ority on Saturday, July 14, 2012 7:47 AM
When we had our house up for sale last year, we found out that we are paying higher real estate taxes than all of our neighbors, even though their houses are four bedrooms, larger and selling for more than our three bedroom would fetch. We watched as five houses in our development sold – two for $500,000, one for $462,500, one for $380,000 and one for $370,000. Since the assessment values of $213,690, $226,040, $211,920, $215, 460 and $186,120 did not change with the sales of these houses and our house, valued at $410,000 in an appraisal last year when we tried to sell, is currently assessed at $235,410, we decided to seek a reassessment, which occurred on Tuesday, 10 July. Well, guess what? We have now been reassessed for an even higher amount - $398,780! The board also stated that the other homes in our development will not be reassessed as they have not filed appeals and that it is up to the county commissioners to schedule any reassessment of real estate in Chester County “if the voters want it”. I was told that our only recourse is to file an appeal with the Court of Common Pleas in Chester County. Now, we have been paying higher taxes than everyone else in our development since the last county assessment took place in the early 1990s. At the time, our house which was built in 1986 was about 10 years younger than our neighbors’ houses, thus the higher assessment. But that was a long time ago and, as you know, real estate values have changed mightily since then. According to a statistical report I found regarding East Bradford Township, the estimated median house or condo value in 2008 was: $433,450; in 2000, it was $248,300. We do not want to spend money for an attorney to fight this – we’ll need every penny we have saved to survive – so I’ve started to do some research on real estate taxes and assessments to see what options we may have. Guess what I learned? According to the Pennsylvania Legislator’s Municipal Deskbook, Third Edition Update (2007), “In order not to violate the uniformity requirement, a property cannot be reassessed for taxation purposes by the county board of assessment simply because it is sold. Apart from a countywide reassessment, an individual property can only be reassessed when: (1) the property is subdivided; (2) a physical change has been made to the property such as new construction or removal or change of existing improvements; or (3) the assessment of the property is appealed by either the property owner or the taxing district. The sale of the property cannot lawfully trigger a reassessment by the county board of assessment regardless of the indicated purchase price. This has been deemed ‘spot’ reassessment by the assessment statutes and by case law. A spot assessment based on the sale of the property in question is unconstitutional under both the federal and the state constitutions”. So there you have it – it wouldn’t do us one bit of good to appeal in Common Pleas Court. According to the law, we can be overtaxed even more than before because of an appeal based on an appraisal but houses that have actually sold at higher values cannot be reassessed! How fair is that?!?
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Joshua Vincent on Monday, July 16, 2012 11:54 AM
Dear Ms Ority: Our parent organization – the Center for the Study of Economics – has helped people appeal their assessments either individually or as a group of neighbors. In Pennsylvania, unless you get a real runaround (and this sounds like a runaround), it sounds like you already have a solid case. The best way to appeal and assessment is to go back year after year, with more and more sales in comparable information. I'd be interested to know what town in Chester County you reside in, and see if some basic research could prove that your evaluation violates the uniformity code. Chester County Pennsylvania was last reassessed in 1998. Therefore, the values are prima facie out of whack. The notion that a reassessment is conducted "if the voters want it" is contrary to written law, common law, and common sense. The County commissioners may commission a full revaluation at any time. In fact, under the law revaluations ought to be done annually. The wishes of the voters are important, but I bet if the voters all ask for brand-new cars, the County commissioners would not likely grant that request! I agree with you that what's happening not only doesn't sound fair, it doesn't sound appropriate under the law.

Joshua Vincent on Wednesday, August 22, 2012 4:05 PM
Dear Mr. Bradley: I appreciate your comments on our postings on the property tax. We base our assertions on how the land value tax has actually played out in the jurisdictions here in the United States where it's been used. We both agree that taxes on improvements are terrible idea: they rob homeowners of equity, they discourage improvement of neighborhoods,they distort the choices made available by a free-market. When the tax relief provided by a land value tax is broken down (say in Clairton Pennsylvania) senior citizens see the biggest reductions percentage-wise on their annual property tax. Some homeowners sought reductions of their city and school tax on the order of 70% annually. These numbers have been studied by our organization and verified by others. As far as protection of those who have lived in rapidly appreciating areas; I believe that the problem does exist although nowhere near the scale we are led to believe (Howard Jarvis and Proposition 13 comes to mind). The tool that's available in many states that we support is called property tax deferral. The property owner applies for a deferral of all property taxes until sale or death. A nominal rate of interest would also be due because that deferral has put the tax burden on other taxpayers during the period of the deferral. Other protections already exist under the law as well. They are a bit clumsier and less efficient than deferral. There are circuit breakers,Homestead exemptions, and exemptions tied to income. As far is states with or without property taxes, you are correct that there is no state without a property tax. The fun part about tax policy, as opposed to studies of economic models is that apples to apples just don't exist in the real world. That's not a bad thing, in it actually provides a wide range of real life models to help prove or disprove a postulate. Yet the incidence of property tax in an environment without state income taxes or high sales taxes demonstrates a causal correlation among state tax systems. For example, Kansas is trying very hard to transform it's state revenue streams away from income taxes for the specific purpose of competing with Texas. On the other side of the coin,if we look at states that have very low property taxes – think of New Mexico, Mississippi, Louisiana and California – we see a conundrum of a lot of very poor people, a few super-rich people, and a nonexistent or shrinking middle class. Again, I agree that a tax on improvements ought to be reduced and eventually eliminated. Yet the lack of a robust property tax in favor of other taxes makes for a poor economy, and an incentive to hold on to vast tracts of possibly productive land for pennies on the dollar, year in year out. I'd like to thank you again for your comments, and I appreciate our differences. I think we're closer in philosophy than we might suspect.
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Jill saxton on Saturday, October 06, 2012 1:33 AM
Taxes of the products should be paid and it's a part of the responsibility of every citizen! I'm not an expert of it but I think it plays a big role in our economy and motivates the financial position strongly so everyone has to be aware of paying taxes. Thanks for an informative discussion about 'Property Taxes'.
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Vincenzo on Tuesday, January 08, 2013 2:47 AM
Many homes that are in danger of being foreclosed could be saved with the elimination of the monthly property tax escrow that can amount to as much as 40% of a mortgage payment.
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