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Other states' tax advice? Good luck
State lawmakers at a national conference get an earful of their peers' property tax struggles.
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 7, 2007
BOSTON - When Florida lawmakers passed a plan to reduce property taxes in June, they gathered under a sign boasting of historic cuts and spent 30 minutes slapping each other's back.
Problem solved, right?
Don't count on it.
"Florida's in for a long, rough ride," said Pennsylvania Rep. David Steil, whose state has grappled with the issue for years.
Referendum after referendum has aimed to cut property taxes. The latest, in 2006, attempted to slash school taxes in favor of a higher income tax. It failed miserably.
"It's a tough sell," Steil said. "People know when one tax goes down, another goes up. And these things are confusing. When people are confused, they vote no."
This week, thousands of lawmakers across the country have gathered in Boston for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Among the dozens of issues on the agenda, property taxes is at the top.
The debate in Florida and the difficult choices it has left lawmakers -- who passed a cap on local governments and set up a Jan. 29 referendum to substantially increase the homestead exemption -- is part of a growing anti-property tax mood across the country.
Pennsylvania may have been dealing with the problem for years, but in many states only now has it reached flash point. New Jersey, Maine, Indiana, Iowa, Texas and Georgia are just some of the states taking on taxes -- with mixed success.
"People are being strangled by property taxes," said Texas state Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican who was elected last year on a platform to cut in half the state's 10 percent annual cap on assessments for homes.
He would go even further than that: abolishing property taxes by increasing the state sales tax, with an exemption for the poor.
"We're seeing an alarming rate of foreclosures. Part of it is people are getting hit with these taxes," Patrick said.
Texas, like Florida, does not have an income tax to offset lost tax revenue. And instituting one in a Republican-controlled state is practically unfathomable.
In Georgia, House Speaker Glenn Richardson is trying to do what his Florida counterpart, Rep. Marco Rubio of Miami, could not: eliminate property taxes entirely.
To do so, Richardson, who like Rubio is a Republican, wants to remove exemptions for groceries and services, such as dry cleaning. But his proposal has already drawn complaints that it would disproportionately hurt the poor.
"We've got to do something," said state Rep. Penny Houston of Georgia, who supports the idea. "People can't stand property taxes any longer."
Rubio has said he still thinks his "tax swap" is a good idea and could complement the relief already in the works.
The Jan. 29 referendum asks Floridians to increase the $25,000 homestead exemption by up to $195,000. Homeowners would have a one-time choice to go with the higher exemption or keep the Save Our Homes cap of 3 percent on annual assessments. The relative complexity, and the fact that it benefits only homeowners, has many predicting the measure will not get the required 60 percent approval.
The national trend is spurred by several factors, chiefly a housing boom that increased values and a growing reliance on property taxes for school funding.
Between 2000 and 2004, 25 cents of every dollar in state education funding was replaced by property taxes, said Andrew Reschovsky, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who studies tax policy.
Reschovsky offers another reason for the growing outrage. As baby boomers reach retirement age, their incomes level off and every expense takes on greater importance. Older boomers also do not have children in schools, making them less accepting of the expense.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find a state where property taxes aren't on the agenda," Reschovsky said.
At the conference in Boston on Wednesday, Reschovsky will host a forum on property tax along with Steil and Rubio, whose crusade against taxes has earned him a bit of a national reputation.
Florida lawmakers attending the conference are being asked by other states about the struggle to curb taxes.
More than a few states seem to be going the direction Rubio wanted by increasing the sales tax.
New Jersey, which has the highest property tax in the nation -- an average of $6,300 a year -- just passed a plan that will provide annual rebates up to 20 percent for homeowners and renters. The rebates are based on how much a person earns. To pay for the program, everyone will pay an additional penny in sales tax on the dollar.
Politicians in Iowa have also floated plans to increase the sales tax by 1 percent.
"But we're all very reluctant to raise taxes," said state Rep. Art Staed, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids. "It would be a very easy job if we didn't have to vote."
In Maine, attempts to lower income and property taxes ended in impasse this summer.
"Property taxes are extremely difficult," said Steil, the Pennsylvania lawmaker. "You just have to keep working on the problem. There are no easy solutions."