So the battle lines are drawn in the property tax debate: Local businesses don't want their taxes raised; homeowners don't want their taxes raised; and large, state-assessed property owners are saying everyone loses if they don't get their taxes lowered.
This is going to be a long, hard argument.It's so difficult, in fact, that attorneys for county governments are suggesting the Legislature do nothing - wait and see if the Utah Supreme Court forces property tax reductions for all state-assessed properties.
Legislators, meanwhile, will try to figure out a way to keep property tax increases on residences - and the hatred of the voters who own those homes - to a minimum.
Earlier this year, the high court ruled that AMAX Corp., a state-assessed property, must get the 20 percent discount off fair market value given homeowners and locally assessed businesses. The ruling only applies to AMAX. But other state-assessed property owners - mines, utilities and railroads - are lining up to sue the state also.
At risk is more than $50 million - the 20 percent in taxes state-assessed property owners pay to local governments and school districts. The state itself doesn't levy a property tax, but lawmakers do force school districts to levy a set property tax which flows into the state's Uniform School Fund and is parceled out to support education. A drop in property tax revenue would have real political impact on the Legislature.
Gov. Norm Bangerter asked the interim Revenue and Taxation Committee to study the matter and report back to him. That committee held its second hearing Wednesday. As expected, the state-assessed property owners, who have banded together under the title Coalition of Centrally Assessed Taxpayers and hired former State Tax Commission chairman Mark Buchi as their attorney, said the 20 percent discount law should be repealed and everyone assessed at 100 percent of fair market value.
That may sound like a good solution. But legislators - who know if homeowner property taxes go up a whole bunch they'll be booted out of office - want homeowners "held harmless" - a catchy phrase that legislative leaders already admit is probably an impossibility.
But if homeowners pay only small tax increases, that means much of the $50 million tax shift would fall on local business property owners. Their representatives said Wednesday that, as much as they dislike it, homeowners should have to bear some of the tax shift also.
Lawmakers, most of whom face election in November, are quick to say homeowners shouldn't see large tax increases. And they are just as quick to say the solution will take some time - like until after the election.
Committee co-chairman Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, asked committee staffers to draw up a proposal that does three things: gives the smallest tax shift possible; holds homeowners "harmless" (only a little tax increase); and does away with the 20 percent discount given homeowners and local businesses.
The Utah Constitution allows homeowners to get - in addition to the statute giving the 20 percent discount - an additional reduction. The Legislature has set that at 25 percent, but it could go as high as 45 percent.
"Yes, we could ignore this (Supreme Court ruling)," said Hillyard. An attorney himself, Hillyard believes the AMAX ruling is a warning by the high court. The justices are saying, "We'll nick you this time and give you time to get your (property tax) house in order. If we (the Legislature) don't act, we could face retroactive (tax) judgments" which could cost the state and local entities a lot more than $50 million, Hillyard said.
Hearings on the issue continue next month, with Hillyard hoping some concrete solutions will be presented.