When state governments force cuts in local tax collections, as New Mexico did almost a decade ago under Governor Bill Richardson, these cuts are often accompanied by a “hold harmless” promise, under which locals will (in theory) be reimbursed for the taxes they are no longer allowed to collect. But the hold harmless pledge often works out to be what Mary Poppins called a “pie crust promise”—easily made and easily broken. Just nine years after Governor Richardson burnished his tax-cutting credentials by exempting groceries from local (and state) gross receipts taxes—while simultaneously implementing a “hold harmless” provision so that locals wouldn’t feel the pain of losing such a large chunk of their tax base—a law is now in place that will completely phase out the hold-harmless aid to locals between 2015 and 2030. A recent Santa Fe New Mexican editorial correctly rakes the legislature over the coals for its “fickle” attitude toward fiscally-strapped local governments.
The lesson for local policymakers facing the threat of state-mandated tax cuts? Hold-harmless provisions should be a basic component of any such cuts—but the state aid resulting from these provisions will be a all-too-tempting target for state lawmakers whenever the economy slows.