Here is how one of democracy's internal-combustion engines works: A volatile housing market pours real estate inflation into one end. That sets off sparks at county assessor offices, which put in motion the pistons of annual property tax notices. Many of those notices require much more money than the year before. This in turn creates a great deal of energy and exhaust from angry homeowners.
That energy spins a little paddle at the other end, which whacks state lawmakers on the behind, prompting them to write meaningless laws.
The machine was working overtime at the end of last year. Some property owners no doubt wanted to call 911 after getting their notices, to report they had been robbed.
But the machine runs mainly on emotion. It can be stopped cold by facts. A lot of you did see huge property-tax hikes last year, but that doesn't tell the whole story.
The truth is the average Utahn spent much more of his or her income on property taxes in 1965 than today. The truth is that Utahns have among the lowest property-tax rates in the nation. The truth is that state lawmakers passed a law 20 years ago that does a good job keeping a lid on overall rates.
The Utah Foundation, a respected independent research group, issued a report this week that looks at the state's property-tax burden. The report reaches all the way back to 1955 to compare how much Utahns have spent though the years on property tax per $1,000 of personal income. It covers all types of property taxes, including commercial and agricultural. In 1955, the burden was $46.21. In 1965 it peaked at $49.80. In 2006 it was $27.11.
Stephen Kroes, the foundation's president and author of the study, said there are a number of explanations for the big drop. The first is that several tax-revolt movements in the 1970s, typified by passage of California's Proposition 13, led Utah governments to reduce rates. The rates began to inch up again in the 1980s, which led to passage of Utah's Tax Increase Disclosure Act, which is more commonly known today as the Truth in Taxation Law.
Simply put, the law requires all local governments, including school districts, to declare a tax increase if they plan to collect any more overall money from one year to the next, except for that which comes from natural growth. If they do declare a tax increase, they must hold public hearings and publish notices in local newspapers.
The key phrase there, of course, is "overall money." There always are inequities between what individual property owners have to pay.
A bar graph accompanying the study shows how dramatically this law has worked. The overall property-tax burden has remained virtually the same here since the mid-1990s, when lawmakers cut the state-assessed levy for schools.
So why are so many people worked up? Because the only historical perspective we care about is how much we pay this year versus last.
Property taxes are seen by many as the schoolyard bullies of the tax world. Homeowners write checks to their counties every year feeling as if they are being forced to fork over their lunch money to avoid a beating. The way democracy's internal-combustion engine works, the paddle is supposed to get the politician to go beat up the bully.
In reality, sales and income taxes are bigger bullies in Utah. We don't think about that much because many of us pay them gradually through the year, and we might even get a refund for the income taxes we pay. We also may take some delight in knowing that even non Utahns pay sales taxes while passing through.
Utahns rank high nationally in the amount of sales and income taxes they have to pay. But the owner of a $300,000 house in Salt Lake City pays about $2,235 in property taxes, which ranks 45th on the list of major cities by state, another chart in the Utah Foundation report shows.Fortunately, this engine of democracy seems to be losing a little steam as the economy cools. Some minor changes would indeed help even the burden a bit. But, for the most part, lawmakers tamed this bully 20 years ago.
Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]