Property tax reform continues to make headlines in several states. Some Indiana property taxpayers are revolting against what they perceive to be an unfair system. Recently more than 3,000 Hoosiers signed post cards addressed to their state policymakers urging them to fix the state's property tax mess permanently. In fact, a legislative commission began hearings last month and Governor Mitch Daniels' appointed blue ribbon commission started work this week. The problems are that taxes are not based on a homeowner's ability to pay and that assessments are executed poorly.
One thought-provoking solution described in the Indianapolis Star is to closely study the property in the state that is not being taxed. Indiana, like most states, exempts nonprofit organizations and religious institutions from paying the property tax. In Marion County alone millions of property tax dollars could be collected if religious institutions paid property taxes. Estimates show there is $2.7 billion in property that goes untaxed in Marion County. Should churches and nonprofit organizations pay property taxes? It's probably the case that no politician in Indiana would seriously propose to tax churches, but the fact that some are contemplating such a move could startle legislators enough to enact real reform.
Are Rebates the Answer?
Indianans will receive locally-funded property tax rebates this winter, but those rebates aren't being greeted with much enthusiasm. Many question the motives of the legislators who approved these rebates. The Post-Tribune writes that instead of offering credits that would be applied to a homeowner's property tax bill directly, "The General Assembly instead decided property owners should receive checks in the mail, so they can see what their elected officials did for them this year."
This week Montana homeowners can begin to apply for a $400 state-funded property tax rebate. The rebates were a highly contested issue in the legislative session as Republicans pushed for permanent property tax cuts instead of the one-time rebates supported by Governor Brian Schweitzer. The Montana rebates shed light on a problematic aspect of property tax rebates and circuit breakers. Because states don't often know how much property tax a homeowner paid, it becomes the homeowner's responsibility to know about and apply for the credit.
Itemized Deductions on State Tax Are No Better
Another misconceived approach to property tax reform is the itemized exemption for property taxes, which is allowed for most states' income taxes. One problem with this is that in the low- and middle-income families hit hardest by property taxes typically don't itemize. Also, income tax deductions are an "upside-down" tax break, since deductions are worth more to the wealthy taxpayers who typically pay higher income tax rates. If property taxes are problematic for some families, offering a deduction that is largest for the wealthiest and not available at all to many middle-income families is certainly not the solution.
In the current skirmish between Missouri and Kansas discussed above, some Missouri legislators have asked why people should be granted such an itemized deduction for property taxes paid in another state (which certainly angers those who pay Missouri income taxes because they work in Missouri, even though they live in and pay property taxes in Kansas). But the better question is why should Missouri allow an itemized deduction for property even if its located in Missouri. The deduction probably does little to help those who could actually use some help.