Property tax reform in Connecticut
is about as likely to happen as President Bush admitting that it
was wrong to invade Iraq.
Almost everyone in state government,
especially Democrats, claims to want relief from the ever-rising
taxes that pay for the ever-rising school spending. But offer them
a solution and it gets struck down faster than you can say chicken-livered.
Why? There's no real need to confront the issue so long as towns
can sprawl their way to tax relief.
The boneyard of reform schemes includes
the famed proposal by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate
Bill Curry. He wanted the state to pay an average of 50 percent
of public school expenses and have towns pass the savings to residents
in the form of lower property taxes. Curry proposed to pay for the
increased school aid in part with an income tax increase on millionaires
and $100 million in spending cuts.
Also on the scrapheap are plans to
raise the income tax or the sales tax and have towns use the extra
money to cover budget increases; to allow municipalities to impose
their own income and sales taxes; to let school boards tax independently;
and to establish regional taxes.
Property taxes can't be held down without
creating other taxes to absorb the inevitable increases in education
and other municipal costs.
Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez has recognized
this absurdity. He may have figured out a way to make it benefit
him and the city's homeowners who face hellacious tax increases
of more than 70 percent if the city enacts an overdue revaluation.
Perez's trick is to propose a tax relief
bill so terrifying to state legislators that it shames them into
allowing him to delay revaluation year after year just to shut him
In 2004, Perez proposed a homestead
exemption that excluded 50 percent of a home's assessed value, up
to $150,000, from property taxes. In an attempt to get business
support, the mayor proposed to do away with the 15 percent surcharge
on commercial properties.
When business screamed that - even
without the surcharge - it would still be stuck with a disproportionate
share of the tax burden, the General Assembly granted Perez a three-year
delay in revaluation.
Earlier this month, in need of another
delay and a reform plan that hasn't already been trashed, Perez
proposed an outlandish scheme. Now he wants to tax residential properties
based on the owners' income and whether or not they live in their
After revaluation, owner-occupants
in one-, two- and three-family houses would pay no more than 4 percent
of their income in property taxes. The poorer you are, the less
you pay. Many residents could end up paying even less than they
do now. Absentee landlords, on the other hand, would pay dearly.
As with Perez's previous plan, the 15 percent surcharge on commercial
properties would be abolished.
At first glance, the Perez hybrid tax
proposal looks just plausible enough to stick to the wall. Great
minds have actually taken the time to analyze this sucker.
But on closer inspection, flaws begin
to emerge. It doesn't eliminate the property tax as the primary
source of funding for education. And it's difficult to explain to
voters - let alone administer - which can be hazardous to a political
It's immensely safer and less thought-provoking
for legislators to simply let towns continue to relieve the agony
of property taxes by expanding their grand lists with big-box stores
and luxury subdivisions. As long as people will pay whatever it
takes to live in the splendor of suburban homogeneity, property
tax reform is just a gimmick to raise voter anxiety and put state
lawmakers on the spot.
That's what the mayor is counting on.
No state lawmaker will vote for a scheme that would risk votes.
Perez could conceivably run his game on the legislature indefinitely.
Eventually, he will have produced so many cockamamie proposals that
if the gutless wonders at the Capitol ever do move to ease the property
tax burden, he could claim they stole his idea.
For now, they should approve another
revaluation delay and move on.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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