What the Original Property Tax Revolutionaries Wanted (and it is Not What You Think) - Review of Isaac William Martin, the Permanent Tax Revolt: How the Property Tax Transformed American Politics (Stanford University Press, 2008)
California Journal of Politics and Policy, Vol. 1, No. 1, Article 18, 2009
17 Pages Posted: 24 Feb 2009 Last revised: 14 Nov 2012
Date Written: February 17, 2009
The reverberations of the tax revolt that began in California in 1978 remain very much with us. Taxes were cut dramatically first in California, then throughout the country at the state level, and then at the federal level. The tax revolt has generated a huge literature in the legal academy (and elsewhere), much of it aimed at explaining why it happened when and how that it did.
Isaac Martin, a sociologist, offers a new explanation for the tax revolt in The Permanent Tax Revolt. This review essay summarizes this book and then proceeds to demonstrate how Martin's analysis undermines the dominant approach to local government law and finance - the Tiebout model.
What is most perplexing about the tax revolt is why it began with the local property tax. This tax would seem to have been directly under the control of the voters. If the property tax rate was perceived as too high, then voters just needed to elect local officials who would lower taxes. The prevalent explanation (that of William Fischel) for the great tax revolt that began in California is that an event happened at the state level that systematically caused voters to turn against the property tax. This supposed catalyst was the mandate handed down by the California Supreme Court that the state must equalize school funding across school districts. This meant, pragmatically, that one's local property taxes could no longer go directly to support one's local schools. Faced with this prospect, voters rejected the property tax. Note that in this model local voters are analyzed as consumers who treated their taxes as a price for a service; they revolted when it appeared they would be asked to pay the price without the service. Note as well that this explanation for the tax revolt suggests that virtually any attempt to achieve more equitable public school finance at the local level is doomed to be self-defeating because Americans expect a market-type relationship between local taxes and services.
Martin argues that this explanation for the tax revolt is false. Martin explains that the tax revolt is better understood as a response to a change in the manner in which the property tax was collected. Residential property owners had grown accustomed to having their property assessed at a value below its market value. This informal tax privilege was not only valuable in absolute terms, but psychologically because the privilege essentially meant that property taxes on one's home would rise little, if at all, over the many years that one might own the home. From the perspective of political and tax theory, such an informal privilege invited corruption and inefficient use of resources. Nevertheless, the informal privilege did provide a valuable form of social insurance and was perceived as such, especially by those voters on fixed incomes. According to Martin, the tax revolt was not sparked by jaded consumers, but by angry homeowners who had deep ties to their communities and did not want to be displaced by market forces. On Martin's view the tax revolt should caution policymakers from doing away with vital forms of social insurance that protect local homeowners from market forces. This is essentially the reverse of the prevailing wisdom described above, which insists that voters will not tolerate a deviation from the rule of market forces at the local level.
Keywords: Proposition 13, tax revolt, Tiebout, property tax
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