In response to what anti-tax advocates have branded as “out of control” property taxes, a number of states have decided to make use of tax “caps” to restrict the growth of local property taxes. California’s Proposition 13 tax cap, approved in 1978, inspired numerous other states to enact similarly ill-conceived property tax caps. These caps can come in many forms, but all are poorly-targeted and costly. In most cases, these caps amount to a state-mandated restriction on the ability of local governments to raise revenue. While state lawmakers get to take credit for cutting taxes, local lawmakers are the ones forced to make difficult decisions regarding which services to cut. There are three main types of property tax caps in use around the country: caps on property tax rates, caps on assessed value growth, and caps on overall property tax revenue growth.
The property tax is an important mechanism for funding education and other local services. But it is unpopular among many taxpayers, in large part because it affects low- and middle-income families more heavily than the wealthy. For example, the tax remains the same when a taxpayer’s income drops significantly due to job loss or retirement. ITEP’s property tax resources explain how property taxes work and evaluate a variety of policies to remedy the regressive nature of the tax.
The property tax is the oldest major revenue source for state and local governments. At the beginning of the twentieth century, property taxes represented more than eighty percent of state and local tax revenue. While this share has diminished over time as states have introduced sales and income taxes, the property tax remains an important mechanism for funding education and other local services. This policy brief discusses why property is taxed and how property taxes are calculated.