north dakota ballot measure property tax tax land

ND voters Reject Measure to Abolish Property Taxes

Property Taxes, a Barbarity -- So Tax Rents Instead

"The devil you know" is what people prefer yet they could "keep their cake and eat it, too" with geonomics. We trim, blend, and append two 2012 articles from (1) Reuters, Jun 12, on North Dakota by D. Bailey and (2) Slate, Jun 14, on property tax by M. Yglesias.

by David Bailey and by Matthew Yglesias

North Dakota voters soundly rejected a ballot measure that sought to make the oil-rich state the first to abolish property taxes.

The measure, which would have required state lawmakers to come up with a way to replace $812 million in lost property tax revenues for 2012 alone, was defeated by a vote of 77.5 percent to 22.5 percent, with 70 percent of precincts reporting.

Moody's had issued a special comment on the measure, saying that if voters were to approve it, local and municipal governments in North Dakota would face significant financial pressure.

To read more

I wish more jurisdictions would think harder about property taxes, which I think are overwhelmingly a barbaric relic of a time when governments faced large logistical constraints in their ability to assess and collect taxes. A property tax is essentially a tax on buildings, and since buildings are the most expensive most important and longest-lasting kind of capital goods we have it winds up being about the most anti-growth form of taxation you can imagine. What's more, it's a tax that has only a hazy relationship to ability to pay which invariably inspires jurisdictions to lard their property tax rules down with all kinds of exemptions and complications.

What you want to do is tax land. I met Rick Rybeck yesterday who sent me an interesting paper of his on one special case of the issue:

“Transportation investments often increase nearby land values. This can choke off development, pushing new growth to cheaper sites remote from these investments. This “leapfrog” development creates a demand for infrastructure extension that starts the process over again.
Transportation infrastructure, intended to facilitate development, thus chases it away. Resulting sprawl strains the transportation, fiscal, and environmental systems upon which communities rely.
Several jurisdictions around the country utilize a value-capture technique embedded in their property tax to help finance infrastructure and motivate affordable compact development. They reduce the tax rate on assessed building values and increase the tax rate on assessed land values. The resulting compact development should facilitate better transportation and accommodate economic growth with reduced fiscal and environmental costs. This technique’s ability to foster affordable compact development might help bridge the gap between those who advocate growth boundaries and those who fear the impact of growth boundaries on affordable housing.”

This is an excellent point, but I really do think the issue is quite general.

If you read the skeptical take on land taxes from Jeffrey P. Cohen and Cletus C. Coughlin (yes, that's really a person's name) I think you'll see that the case for them is really quite strong.
* Their first objection is that doing assessments of land value ex structures accurately is difficult. That's true [yet professional appraisers do it for private buyers and sellers all the time], but doing the theoretically correct tax with some estimation error is much closer to optimal than doing the wrong tax accurately.
* Their third objection is the ridiculous one that a land tax will redistribute resources away from wealthy landowners, which they correctly note "might be viewed by some as a virtue rather than a fault."
* Last they claim that "if a pure land tax were to capture all current and future rent from the landowners, the market value of the land would become zero" leading to widespread abandonment of land. If that were in fact to occur then I think we'd have to cut the tax. But I also think it's wrong. For one thing, land would have consumption value to its owners.
[Actually, the pair of economists got their terminology wrong -- again. The “market value of land” would stay the same, it’s the price of land that would fall to zero, as the tax -- or fees or dues -- rises to 100% of rental value. People would still value the land as much as before and be willing to pay the same as before but no longer to owners, instead to neighbors -- via their government. Thus the land tax or land dues does not change how much one pays -- market value -- but to whom one pays -- community.]

But more broadly, I think this is a bit like saying that since the average investor can't beat average stock market returns nobody will ever buy stock. Or that since the expected return on launching a small business is negative there will be no entrepreneurship. The whole economy is propelled forward by a Lake Wobegon effect where, almost by definition, investors and entrepreneurs all think they're above average. High land taxes will make land cheap, but entrepreneurs will want to get their hands on that cheap land in order to undertake their entrepreneurial schemes.

To read more

JJS: Over at Slate where Matt blogs, the discussion is raging; you might like to chime in with your two cents worth.


Editor Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics and helped prepare a course for the UN on geonomics. To take the “Land Rights” course, click here .

Also see:

When the value of good land rises …

If the state won’t collect the commonwealth …

Those Debating Economic Policies, Attention

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