Friday, February 03, 2006

Giving Away Tax Fairness

Many people blame government for high property taxes. They're understandably confused about who to blame. The Legislature wants them to blame local government. That's not close to fair, considering it's the Legislature that makes the rules of what kinds of property can be taxed, and what kinds can't.

Maybe I'm a hopeless cynic. Maybe that's what you get standing on the sidelines watching state government for 35 years and seeing the Legislature's antics -- I mean performance.

Of course, the Legislature has a hard enough time balancing the need to placate special interests with the need to convince voters that lawmakers of one political party or another (never both) are doing the public's work.

Maybe that's why the list of property tax exemptions in the state statutes (Sec. 70.11) is five pages long. Property tax exemptions have been ill-defined because the Legislature saw no pressing need to define them precisely. It wasn't their tax revenue that they were eroding.

At the same time, local officials are seldom anxious to fight tax-exemption grabs. Everybody who claims a tax exemption also claims to be a good guy.

Nowhere has the leak of tax revenue been greater than in tax exemptions for so-called benevolent organizations. Most notably, so-called benevolent organizations have claimed tax exemptions for the housing they provide to pretty wealthy individuals, particularly senior citizens.

As is the wont of special interests, they care not for the citizens who are not under their benevolent umbrella: poor people and middle-income homeowners and renters who don't live in "benevolent" housing.

The Legislature has a bill, AB 573, to correct some of the inequities of current law. It's been amended until the cows come home. It now satisfies everybody but a narrow special interest that is concerned about something called the "rent-own" provision of the bill, likely for their own selfish interests.

The amended bill protects homeowners and local governments by ending the unfair shift of the property tax burden onto homeowners that occurs under current law because high-end senior housing claimis tax-exempt status.

It maintains property tax exemptions for housing for the poor and disabled. But it eliminates a loophole that drives up property taxes for the rest of us.

Great idea for everybody exccept a narrow special interest.

So, behold, Sen. Dan Kapanke and Rep. Leah Vukmir have come to the defense of this narrow special interest, whatever it is, with LRB 4284/1. Stay tuned.