In the next six months, the Utah Legislature and Gov. Norm Bangerter will likely make a critical property tax decision.
You may not even notice it until November 1991 when you pay your next property tax bill. But you should be paying attention now.If you own commercial property, you're probably going to get slapped upside the head in a big way.
Even if you're only a homeowner, you may well see your taxes go up.
For the Republican governor and Republican-controlled Legislature, it's a real headache. In typical political manner, some legislators are saying maybe they should do nothing. At least for now.
But others advocate some response to the court-ordered problem. The question is: What the heck to do?
Here's the problem, explained as simply as I can put it:
Most real and personal property is assessed - valued - by county assessors. But one class of property - property that crosses county lines like utilities, railroads and mines - is assessed by the State Tax Commission. This "state-assessed" property, for some very good political reasons, has been treated differently than locally assessed businesses and houses and personal property, like cars and boats.
In the face of a citizens' revolt in 1980 - the result of statewide reassessment of property - the Legislature gave a discount to locally assessed property owners of 20 percent. A year later, legislators and citizens changed the Utah Constitution to allow up to an additional 45 percent discount on primary residences. After voters approved that amendment, the Legislature set that discount at 25 percent.
Left out of all these discounts were state-assessed properties - the mines, railroads and utilities, who continued to be assessed at 100 percent of fair market value.
Earlier this year, AMAX Corp. won a suit in the Utah Supreme Court. The high court said AMAX - and only AMAX - had to get the 20 percent discount given all locally assessed properties. But a whole bunch of other state-assessed property owners have or are going to file suit.
Thus, if the Legislature and governor don't act, it's likely - although not certain - that the Supreme Court will order that all these other big-business owners get the 20 percent tax break as well.
To give that break to all state-assessed properties means a $50 million loss in property tax revenue to schools and local governments.
While the state itself doesn't levy a property tax, it does force school districts to levy a property tax, which goes into the state's Uniform School Fund to be parceled out to each school district according to the number of students in the school.
So, the Legislature should deal with the problem - since it created it in the first place and has a real interest in school funding.
Here are some of the options legislators are considering:
- They could do nothing. As each state-assessed property gets its Supreme Court ruling, schools and local governments would lose money.
- They could "equalize" the assessments, raising everyone to 100 percent or lowering state-assessed to 80 percent. (Primary homeowners would still get the additional 25 percent discount). This sounds fair and logical. But it certainly means a tax hike for business owners and probably a tax increase for homeowners. A very bad way to get re-elected.
- They could "equalize" the assessments and increase some current tax that applies mostly to state-assessed properties, and then lower property taxes accordingly. For example, they could increase the severance tax, so mines and oil companies would pay more in that tax, offsetting their property tax reductions.
(There's real problems with this solution, however, since the state collects severance tax but is forbidden by the Constitution from "revenue sharing" with local governments.)
- They could "equalize" the assessments and impose some new tax aimed at getting the lost revenue from the state-assessed property owners.
Heavy-hitting lobbyists are working overtime - and getting paid a whole lot for it - to come up with solutions that harm their special interests the least.
The only group that doesn't have paid lobbyists haunting the Capitol halls are the homeowners themselves.
Of course, they'll have their say in November 1992, when they get their first shot at the legislators who raised their taxes in 1991. We'll see how many legislators are listening next January.