Beware of Republican fuzzy math on property taxes

Later today the three Republican candidates for governor will hold their first debate. When discussing state fiscal issues, they are likely to advance two contradictory arguments. First, they will criticize alleged “overspending” by Iowa Democrats, ignoring the good marks our state has received for fiscal management and the fact that severe state budget cuts would be a big drag on the economy. I will address those points in a future post.

Second, the Republican candidates for governor will criticize spending reductions Democrats included in next year’s budget, on the grounds that those cuts will force corresponding increases in property taxes statewide. It’s true that many Iowans will pay more in property taxes because of changes related to the “rollback” calculation, which “determines the percentage of a property’s actual value that will be taxable” in a given year. Former GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Rants explained here why the rollback figure is on the rise. It has nothing to do with the tough choices Democrats made on the 2011 budget.

Rants and other Republicans are wrong to suggest that any cut in state spending will automatically lead to further property tax hikes. (They’ve been making that claim since Governor Chet Culver’s across-the-board budget cut last October.) Here’s just one example of why their assumptions are flawed. The Des Moines Register reported Tuesday on how Des Moines area school districts are coping with budget shortages. All of the districts will receive less from the state in the next fiscal year. Thankfully, the cuts are smaller than the worst-case scenarios floated in February, because Iowa House and Senate Democrats sought to protect K-12 education from severe budget cuts.

Anyway, all Iowa school districts are adapting to the reduction in state funding. But contrary to what Iowa Republicans are telling you, many districts, including the state’s largest in Des Moines, have ruled out property tax increases. Of the 10 central Iowa school districts mentioned in this article, only three are raising property taxes, and one more is considering that step. The others are cutting expenses and in some cases using money from cash reserves to cover the shortfalls in the coming fiscal year.

Some local governments in Iowa will raise property tax rates, but as with school districts, many will get by with spending or service cuts instead. I support additional federal fiscal aid to local and state governments, because the collapse in revenues is the most severe in six decades, and spending cuts could hamper the economic recovery. But naturally, the same Republicans who scream about property tax hikes are against using “one-time federal money” to help balance budgets.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

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