At a time when it seems like only the worst kinds of property tax reform have any chance of gaining steam, the Minnesota House recently came through with a reform bill that completely bucks the trend.
Expecting that property tax bills in Minnesota may soon grow a bit too high for comfort for some families, legislators avoided the temptation that we've seen take hold elsewhere to carelessly slash property taxes without regard for how those cuts will affect families of varying income levels. Instead, the House has proposed expanding the state's "circuit-breaker" credit to include many more families than are currently eligible, and to provide many families already benefiting from the credit with even more relief.
Just as appealing as the expansion of the state "circuit-breaker", however, is the means by which Minnesota plans to pay for that expansion. The House has proposed ending the state income tax deduction for property taxes paid. This deduction overwhelmingly benefits better off taxpayers who are more likely to itemize, and for whom deductions are more valuable since they pay income taxes at a higher rate.
The combination of these changes is a significant step toward making less unfair a starkly regressive property tax in Minnesota. Scaling back the state's existing homestead credit will also provide funds with which to pay for this better-targeted relief. Finally, the bill would also eliminate what is estimated to be a $186 million loophole for foreign operating corporations.
Unfortunately, there are serious obstacles to the bill's passage. First, the Senate has been contemplating a different approach in which state money would simply be given to local governments, in the hope that an influx of funds would encourage localities to cut taxes. Fortunately, Governor Pawlenty is not on board with this plan, preferring relief be given directly to taxpayers. But the Governor is also not yet on board with the House's plan. Pawlenty continues to insist that a firm cap on increases in local property tax collections must be the "linchpin" of any reform. The House added a levy limit on local governments to its bill in an attempt to accommodate the Governor, though that limit is not as strict as he has requested. Hopefully the Minnesota legislature will be able to push this bill through without too strict a limit on local government revenues. Such limits generally tend to leave local governments hurting for funds as the rising cost of providing government services outpaces the allowed limits.