Property Tax Revolt: The First Time Was Only a Warning

It looks like a property tax revolt is brewing across the country, perhaps the biggest one since the era of Proposition 13, in the late 1970s. The Christian Science Monitor reports today that “legislative proposals, citizen initiatives, and lawsuits are on the agenda in at least 20 states.”

It’s no surprise why. Rising home values have meant rising assessments in many parts of the country. Rising home values are great if you’re selling; but if you’re not planning to sell your house, the increase can just mean higher taxes. And now, as Dennis Cauchon pointed out in USA Today, house prices are falling in some places but assessments haven’t yet been adjusted.

More importantly, cities and counties gleefully increased spending as the tax revenue rolled in during a decade or so of rising prices. But now that the revenue increases are slowing, local governments don’t want to cut back. Instead, they want to raise rates to keep the good times rolling—for governments if not for taxpayers.

The Wall Street Journal reports that more and more taxpayers are protesting their assessments. That’s one form of rebellion. Another is tax protests and calls for political action, and the Journal reports that those are happening, too, from Florida to Minnesota.

Back in 1978, the college newspaper cartoonist Berke Breathed (later famous for “Bloom County” and “Opus”) drew a brilliant cartoon about Proposition 13. For the benefit of our younger readers, I’ll explain: Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes in California, was spearheaded by Howard Jarvis. And it passed in June 1978, about the time the movie The Omen II came out, with its tagline “The first time was only a warning.” And Breathed was right: Prop 13 was a warning to the political class that taxpayers were fed up. After Proposition 13, the Democratic Congress cut the capital gains tax rate. Massachusetts passed Proposition 2-1/2 in 1980. More than a dozen other states put constitutional limits on taxes in the next few years. Ronald Reagan ran for president on a tax-cutting platform; he defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter, swept in a Republican Senate, and cut the top marginal income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 and then to 28 percent.

From earmarks to entitlements to local assessments, it’s time for taxpayers to give the political class another warning.