The removal of the sales tax from food as well as other sales taxes will bring a brighter economic future for Utah, but the proposal before voters on Nov. 6 is premature.
This does not mean that the hard work of the proponents should go for naught. The stimulated interest of voters should accelerate study and understanding of taxation that should encourage action for tax reform by the Legislature.It is true that Oregon and Montana operate without a general sales tax and that New Hampshire and Alaska operate with neither a general sales tax nor a state personal income tax. But Utah's public revenue needs are such that it would create serious problems if the food sales tax revenue is lost without replacement.
To replace one disincentive tax with other discincentive taxes is not progress. Before any reform can get far, the property tax on improvements and on personal property should be lowered and removed.
This would not involve revenue loss because the replacement revenue would come from the only incentive tax, a tax on land values.
This would require amendment of the State Constitution, which now prevents different tax rates on land values and on improvements. Tax reform has to be bipartisan, as it must start in the Legislature with a resolution approved by a two-thirds vote of both Senate and House.
In the 1989 Legislature, such a resolution was filed but failed to pass the Rules Committee. Hopefully, concerned voters will put enough pressure on so that will not happen when such a resolution is proposed again.
A political effort to correct the property tax inequity was started in this country and a number of other countries a century ago, but the effort came close to termination when World War I began. At that time, socialism was becoming popular overseas and at home there seemed to be no need for economic reform.
For property tax reform to gain acceptance, study is needed, not only by educators and politicians, but also by voters who, in the end, must approve the needed constitutional amendments.
Proposals for a single tax followed the publication of "Progress and Poverty" by Henry George in 1880. The land tax idea had earlier been proposed by the French Physiocrats and by Thomas Paine, but Henry George was the first in the industrial age to see that the problem was becoming critical.
Early Libertarians, inspired by Albert Jay Nock were Georgists. Today, Libertarians are divided on the land value tax issue.
One who is a recognized authority on market economies argues that the application of the single tax would not work because as the land value tax increases, the selling price of land would decrease and the basis for the tax would disappear.
Ultimately, the annual rental value of land would be the basis rather than land sale price. But that is of no concern at this time when the load of disincentive taxes are high and land taxes are so light, relatively, that land sale prices are a deterrent to the economy.
The rental value of land that does not shrink with falling land prices is influenced by many factors. As populations increase, as the health of the economy improves, as the price of land is lower, the demand for land will increase. The source for public revenue, then, the rental value of land, will increase.
Today, legislatures, school districts, counties and cities struggle to find revenues to meet needs without adverse effects on the economy and they cannot find them.
With land value taxation, community-created values become community values retained for the community, not privately appropriated values.
Also the economy efficiency would increase because choice sites, now not available because of land speculation, would be put to use in preference to poorer sites.
Redevelopment agencies would not be needed to acquire sites for development because speculative withholding of land would become unprofitable.
The speed at which the tax shift is made should be controlled by local government, which is the heaviest user of the property tax. The goal is not to put unreasonable losses on land owners with undeveloped, or poorly used, land, although there will be losses. The goal is a healthier economy and greater opportunity for all.
Reform cannot start until the Constitution is amended. The earliest opportunity for that will be at the November 1992 election. The need at this Nov. 6 election is not only for a "no" vote on the food sales tax issue, but for the election of legislators who will put out real efforts for property tax reform.