Gov. Norm Bangerter, who is creeping up on Democrat Ted Wilson in the polls, tried a new campaign tactic this week: he promised to cap property taxes if he's re-elected.
The idea, standing alone, is not bad.Utahns have been sick of rising property taxes for years. Inflation in the 1970s drove property, especially residential housing, skyward. Property taxes, based on fair market value, went along with the ride.
When local governments and school districts raised taxing rates, as they did off and on, the taxes jumped even faster.
Polls by Dan Jones & Associates for the Deseret News and KSL-TV have shown for more than a year that the property tax-cutting initiative has the most support among citizens.
That's because people hate the property tax. And part of that hate comes because they have very little control over it. The reasons are simple: property taxes rise without any action by government officials and when those officials do act, few citizens know about it.
First, inflation, housing markets, and the competency of the county assessor dictate a property's value, which, in turn, helps determine the tax.
Second, up to a dozen different government entities or special districts may impose a tax on a piece of property. In Salt Lake County alone there are more than 50 commissions, councils or boards that levy a property tax.
How can property owners be expected to attend all of these entities' council meetings to oppose a property tax increase? They can't, they don't, and they resent the tax that eats away at their incomes, especially in their retirement years.
So the property tax initiative, which would limit residential property tax to 0.75 percent of fair market value and all other property taxes to 1 percent, has real appeal to many Utahns. In Salt Lake County, for example, residential property is taxed at over 1.25 percent of fair market value, says the county auditor's office.
Bangerter doesn't want to go as far as that initiative would. He opposes all three initiatives. He believes the property tax initiative would cost local governments and school districts more than $180 million, and says they can't afford that.
Instead, the governor wants to freeze the property tax at current levels. While Bangerter's plan wouldn't result in a tax decrease, it would keep local officials and the Legislature from raising the tax rates. (Lawmakers mandate the funding level for the Uniform School Fund, although the property tax rate for that fund is actually imposed by local school boards).
If the taxing entity, whether a county commission, city council or school board, wanted to raise the property tax rate, it would have to get approval of the voters in the taxing district, says the governor.
While the governor's tax limitation plan may well have some appeal, its timing is so political it screams out to be questioned.
Bangerter openly admits he's trying to get votes. I like that kind of boldness.
But I'm not so sure the Utah electorate will. They aren't used to being wooed as Bangerter and the Republican-dominated Legislature has this year.
Bangerter and the Legislature have already given a 12.5 percent income tax rebate. The checks are arriving in the mail now, if they haven't already.
The governor and Legislature also reduced the income tax rates. And they gave back a third of the deduction on state returns for federal income tax paid. Loss of the deduction in 1987 was a sore point with a number of Republican bigwigs.
Now Bangerter, with the GOP legislative leadership at his side, are promising a property tax freeze.
The general thinking is that Bangerter has to do something, or lose the race coasting to the finish. The property tax freeze is something. If it's not enough, look for another promise in the next month.
What could it be? A chicken in every pot?
I don't know. Maybe another proposal aimed at placating angry taxpayers who blame Bangerter for the 1987 tax increases. Politicians are resourceful people. Stay tuned.