County council members are squirming across the state as real property tax assessments soar with the hot real estate market while state lawmakers squirm over the debate of what to do with the looming state surplus.
Squirm because elected officials today just don’t want to make those hard decisions that might back fire at the ballot box. Indeed, for the longest time the first priority of the day after an official is elected to office is to insure that he or she is reelected. As a result, elected officials nearly always take the path of least resistance, avoiding those hard decisions that might jeopardize their reelection.
At the county level, council members want to provide tax relief to homeowners who are outraged at the high valuations for their homes, but instead of doing the right thing by lowering the real property tax rate, they search high and low for some sort of gimmick that will look like they are providing tax relief to the homeowner. They explore raising the home exemption because it is already in place and taxpayers understand it. But they realize that rich and poor alike can claim the home exemption and more likely it is middle and upper-income taxpayers as they have been able to buy a house.
Other tax relief proposals seem like great ideas, but upon closer examination, those proposals punish as much as they reward taxpayers. For example, one proposal would limit the annual increase in assessments depending on how long one has lived in the home with decreasing annual percentage increases the longer the tenure of the homeowner. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of the new homeowner who is more than likely a young couple with a new child struggling to make ends meet. Ironically, for those homeowners who have lived in their homes over a longer period of years, the financial hardships may not be as great as they no longer have children at home and have probably paid off their mortgage.
But county officials bemoan taking the most direct route to property tax relief, that is, lowering the property tax rate to compensate for the soaring assessments. They believe that once lowered, it will be difficult to raise the tax rate in times when assessments don’t rise as quickly. These officials seem to forget that they were elected to office to make hard decisions, decisions that they believe might not get them reelected. If elected officials don’t want to make hard decisions and be held accountable for them, then they shouldn’t have run for office. They would be much safer staying in the safe confines of their home.
At the state level, elected officials are likewise afraid to make difficult decisions. The issue this year is that looming surplus in the state general fund. On one hand, elected officials are dying to get their hands on that surplus money so that they can spend it on their favorite programs or to pander to their constituents who are complaining about deteriorating school facilities. On the other hand, they hear their constituents complaining about struggling with the higher cost of living with everything from food and housing to gasoline taking more and more of their take-home pay.
Now that the governor has thrown down the gauntlet challenging lawmakers to return some of the surplus funds to taxpayers, will lawmakers be willing to make the tough decision to give back some of those funds at the expense of their wanting to spend those dollars to prove to their constituents that they are doing something?
Legislative resistance to tax relief in light of the looming surplus is rather curious. Do lawmakers think that taxpayers like paying higher and higher taxes? Do lawmakers believe that giving back taxes is a waste of money, that they can do more good with those dollars than taxpaying consumers?
Balancing the needs of the state with the needs of the taxpayer can be viewed as a tough decision because for lawmakers, spending those tax dollars has always come much more easily then giving them back. All one has to do is to look at the record the last time the state enjoyed such a surplus. Lawmakers did everything they could not to give back the surplus from spending it on frivolous shopping for koa benches to hiding the money in special funds. Indeed, after a review of the legislation already introduced this year, lawmakers are at it again.
As the governor said, the state can have it all, the question is whether or not lawmakers are willing to make the tough decisions on balancing the needs of the state with the needs of the taxpayer. Just a few short years ago, lawmakers also squirmed as they tried to “kickstart” the economy by adopting tax reductions only to walk away from the table having to phase-in those reductions over a period of years.
So instead of waiting for another economic crisis, lawmakers should put tax relief on their agenda now.