Numerous States Wrestle with Competing Visions of Property Tax Reform

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The Minnesota legislature approved a property tax bill this week (discussed here by the Minnesota Budget Project) that should be studied very closely by New York, Massachusetts, and any other state looking to improve the fairness of its property tax. The Minnesota bill makes use of what is primarily a two-pronged approach to providing tax relief. However, one of those prongs, the property tax circuit-breaker, is noticeably more effective than the other.

The first prong of the Minnesota plan is an expansion of the state's property tax circuit-breaker credit that provides refunds to households who spend more than a given percentage of their income on property taxes (for information on the fairness gains to be had from circuit-breakers, refer to this ITEP Policy Brief). For other states interested in enacting or expanding similar programs, a recent report from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center proposes a variety of targeted expansions to the Massachusetts circuit-breaker (which, as in many states, is currently available only to low-income seniors) that would greatly improve the fairness of the property tax.

The second prong of Minnesota's approach to property tax relief was a late addition at the request of Governor Pawlenty: a 3.9% cap on increases in local property taxes. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report released this week explains why such caps are a bad idea. The most obvious problem is that caps constrain local government revenues without regard to the cost of providing public services. Tax caps also force localities to become more dependent on state aid, which becomes problematic during an economic downturn when that aid decreases but the cost of providing goods such as education and law enforcement remains the same or even increases. Fortunately, Minnesota's cap is slightly less stringent than some states. It has a higher ceiling on revenue increases, numerous conditions under which a locality can avoid the cap, and a provision to expire after three years.

This discussion is especially relevant in New York, where a state property tax panel is expected to propose both a circuit breaker and a cap on annual revenue increases sometime in the next two weeks. Thankfully, the influential Working Families Party in New York, as well as teachers' organizations and over thirty state legislators have voiced support for the circuit-breaker idea. The Working Families proposal would pay for this relief by raising income taxes on people earning more than $500,000 annually. Fortunately, the tax cap idea appears slightly less popular, though it is far too early too tell if that proposal will pick up steam as well. To keep up with the debate, which is sure to quickly gain steam, see the New York Fiscal Policy Institute.

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