November 21, 2003
Let's Learn Our Lessons on Property Tax Reform
Back when state politicians were wearing themselves out congratulating each other for enacting tax restructuring in Indiana , some of us were not quite as pleased. We noticed that, despite all the rhetoric about rewriting our state's tax code for the twenty-first century, the old nineteenth century language had plenty of life left. In fact, the same system that ultimately produced an assessment outcome so inequitable that the Tax Court found it unconstitutional was left essentially intact.
Now taxpayers have begun to notice, and those congratulatory smiles have faded into frowns of concern for the elected officials who feel their wrath. The tax bills that have finally begun to arrive across the state have revealed much more than the old versus new home, business versus homeowner shifts in tax burden that were unavoidable consequences of moving to market value-based assessment. They've also told us that much of what we don't like about the property tax -- its complexity, unpredictability, and its weak relationship to our ability to pay -- remains intact.
That realization makes some legislators want to return to the past. They want to shift the burdens back to where they were. It’s not legally feasible, of course, and it’s not economically desirable, but it does solve their problem, namely, fielding angry calls from constituents.
A better approach would be to learn from some of the lessons this experience has taught us.
For example, can there be any doubt after the mess this year that the administrative system of property tax assessment in this state is broken? Countless local governments have simply gone without desperately needed revenues this year while layers of bureaucrats sort out their tax bills. For many communities, there is still no end in sight.
Township-based assessment is a bad idea, pure and simple. Tax burdens may be up to each locality to decide, but decades of law and basic principles of fairness tell us that the process of assessment must be uniform across the state. So why do we have hundreds of assessors carrying it out?
In fact, one could legitimately ask why we have township governments at all, when we already have county-level governments in place to handle the public affairs of unincorporated areas.
Less obvious, but no less urgent, is the need to dismantle the unique feature aspect of the Indiana levy system that allows politicians to silently ramp up spending and shift tax burdens among property owners. That process was largely at fault in the maelstrom created when MarionCounty tax bills came out last summer, and it remains only dimly understood by taxpayers, many of whom have never been exposed to any other system.
Too often, when public officials make decisions that lower any individual's tax burden in Indiana , they use our money to make up the difference. Abatements, deductions, and elimination of certain forms of property -- like inventories -- from taxation do not alter the revenues enjoyed by the government granting them, since the rates on unaffected property are raised to make up the difference. Indeed, from the taxpayer's perspective, tax rates are produced much like instant lottery tickets, and are just about as predictable.
We need a system where tax breaks are paid for by the governments who grant them, not by other taxpayers, and where tax rates cannot be silently adjusted to meet local government's needs. When we get that, and we take a more professional, less political, approach to assessment, maybe we can really call it reform.
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