Is the idea of a property tax all that bad or have people pounced down on it because in a world of expensive and lousy government services, it's the easiest tax to get by the neck and strangle? The June 6 California ballot on Proposition 13, which would cut back and limit property taxes in our largest state, has been getting volumes of national publicity.
Most of it tacitly accepts the idea that property taxes are an unfair burden on working people. The only quarrel with Proposition 13 seems to be that of California's Gov. Jerry Brown who believes the cutbacks its passage would bring in government services would be intolerably large. He himself favors a modified Proposition 13, which will also be on the ballot, with the result that no one having access to a podium is arguing the case for a property tax as a major revenue producer.
Even liberals attack the property tax because they think it's regressive; that is, it takes too much from those least able to afford it and not enough from those who can. But that's not so. The property tax is only levied against people rich enough to own property. That lets out the poor and just as important, younger people just starting out to make money and accumulate savings.
The income tax is strongly weighted against earners and for people who already have made their pile. The income tax doesn't touch the pile, which often is owned by non-producing, socially useless possessors of inherited wealth; at the same time the most socially valuable people, high-wage earners, often are socked at rates which border on confiscation.
One of the problems with the property tax is that it isn't applied to intangible property which means that the 1 percent of the population which owns 70 percent of the nation's corporate stock sits on this vast hoard of wealth without paying a dime's worth of taxes on it. Joseph Nocera in an excellent piece in this month's Washington Monthly ("Surprise: The Property Tax Could be Good for You"), reminds us that, "In 1968, the Securities and Exchange Commission figured intangible property came to $3.9 trillion, which, if taxed at 2 percent, could bring in $80 billion in tax revenues."
That's the kind of property tax which could permit large reductions on the taxes levied against small homes. One of the reasons the middle-income homeowner is being hurt so badly by property taxes is that his or her property is getting taxed when a lot of other people's property isn't. Not only do stocks, which are truly property because they are truly ownership shares, skip by without being taxed, but so do the billions in "nonprofit" institutions like schools and churches.
Richly endowed institutions which pay their administrators very handsome salaries certainly can afford to pay taxes for the services they use. Even without a property tax exemption, these institutions would be left with many other tax breaks, too many, considering to what extent their services are reserved primarily for the beneifit and use of the well-to-do.
Poor charitable institutions serving poor people could retain all or part of their present tax exemption. Many local jurisdictions already have such mechanisms in effect for lower-in-come retirees. Those with incomes falling below a certain figure are forgiven a portion of their property tax. The circuit breaker, as this device is called, makes the property tax yet more equitable.
What makes it inequitable isn't the tax itself but the way it is administered. Tax assessments may rival zoning as a source of corruption in countless communities. Big down-town businesses frequently enjoy freeloading at the expense of hardworking home-owning families. If the same energy could be devoted to seeing that the property tax is fairly administered as is being spent on seeing it repealed, it could be made to work.
For people who haven't found a way to get efficient and frugal government, cutting the water off may seem like the only practical approach. But cutting government income is the same as making government more efficient. The revenues lost by measures like Proposition 13 will be recouped by increasing the taxes on the very people who were supposed to be helped.