View Full Version : (Real Estate) Property Tax history in the United States

01-14-08, 01:08 PM

Fascinating article - great stuff

Some juicy tidbits.

This table does seem to show a consistent decrease of property tax revenues with the results primarily impacting local governments. State government is also affected, but the State governments now obtain revenue through other means - primarily sales and income taxes.

Property Taxes as a Percentage of Own-Source
General Revenue, Selected Years
Year State Local
1902 45.3 78.2
1913 38.9 77.4
1922 30.9 83.9
1932 15.2 85.2
1942 6.2 80.8
1952 3.4 71.0
1962 2.7 69.0
1972 1.8 63.5
1982 1.5 48.0
1992 1.7 48.1
1999 1.8 44.6

Source: U. S. Census of Governments, Historical Statistics of State and Local Finance, 1902-1953; U. S. Census of Governments, Governments Finances for (various years); and http://www.census.gov (http://www.census.gov/).

When the Revolutionary War began, the colonies had well-developed tax systems that made a war against the world’s leading military power thinkable. The tax structure varied from colony to colony, but five kinds of taxes were widely used. Capitation (poll) taxes were levied at a fixed rate on all adult males and sometimes on slaves. Property taxes were usually specific taxes levied at fixed rates on enumerated items, but sometimes items were taxed according to value. Faculty taxes were levied on the faculty or earning capacity of persons following certain trades or having certain skills. Tariffs (imposts) were levied on goods imported or exported and excises were levied on consumption goods, especially liquor.
During the war colonial tax rates increased several fold and taxation became a matter of heated debate and some violence. Settlers far from markets complained that taxing land on a per-acre basis was unfair and demanded that property taxation be based on value. In the southern colonies light land taxes and heavy poll taxes favored wealthy landowners. In some cases, changes in the tax system caused the wealthy to complain. In New York wealthy leaders saw the excess profits tax, which had been levied on war profits, as a dangerous example of “leveling tendencies.” Owners of intangible property in New Jersey saw the tax on intangible property in a similar light.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, criticism of the uniform, universal (general) property tax was widespread. A leading student of taxation called the tax, as administered, one of the worst taxes ever used by a civilized nation (Seligman, 1905).
There are several reasons for the failure of the general property tax. Advocates of uniformity failed to deal with the problems resulting from differences between property as a legal term and wealth as an economic concept. In a simple rural economy wealth consists largely of real property and tangible personal property -- land, buildings, machinery and livestock. In such an economy, wealth and property are the same things and the ownership of property is closely correlated with income or ability to pay taxes.
In a modern commercial economy ownership and control of wealth is conferred by an ownership of rights that may be evidenced by a variety of financial and legal instruments such as stocks, bonds, notes, and mortgages. These rights may confer far less than fee simple (absolute) ownership and may be owned by millions of individuals residing all over the world. Local property tax administrators lack the legal authority, skills, and resources needed to assess and collect taxes on such complex systems of property ownership.
Another problem arose from the inability or unwillingness of elected local assessors to value their neighbor’s property at full value. An assessor who valued property well below its market value and changed values infrequently was much more popular and more apt to be reelected. Finally the increasing number of wage-earners and professional people who had substantial incomes but little property made property ownership a less suitable measure of ability to pay taxes.

The depression years after 1929 resulted in widespread property tax delinquency and in several states taxpayers forcibly resisted the sale of tax delinquent property. State governments placed additional limits on property tax rates and several states exempted owner-occupied residence from taxation. These homestead exemptions were later criticized because they provided large amounts of relief to wealthy homeowners and disproportionally reduced the revenue of local governments whose property tax base was made up largely of residential property.
After World War II many states replaced the homestead exemption with state financed “circuit breakers” which benefited lower and middle income homeowners, older homeowners, and disabled persons. In many states renters were included by provisions that classified a portion of rental payments as property taxes. By 1991 thirty-five states had some form of circuit breakers (Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, 1992, 126-31).
Proponents of the general property tax believed that uniform and universal taxation of property would tend to limit taxes. Everybody would have to pay their share and the political game of taxing somebody else for one’s favorite program would be impossible. Perhaps there was some truth in this argument, but state legislatures soon began to impose additional limitations. Typically, the statutes authorizing local government to impose taxes for a particular purpose such as education, road building, or water systems, specified the rate, usually stated in mills, dollars per hundred or dollars per thousand of assessed value, that could be imposed for that purpose.
These limitations provided no overall limit on the taxes imposed on a particular property so state legislatures and state constitutions began to impose limits restricting the total rate or amount that could be imposed by a unit of local government. Often these were complicated to administer and had many unintended consequences. For example, limiting the tax that could be imposed by a particular kind of government sometime led to the creation of additional special districts.

California’s Tax Revolt
Within a few years the country was swept by a wave of tax protests, often called the Tax Revolt. Almost every state imposed some kind of limitation on the property tax, but the most widely publicized was Proposition 13, a constitutional amendment passed by popular vote in California in 1978. This proved to be the most successful attack on the property tax in American history. The amendment:
1. limited property taxes to one percent of full cash value
2. required property to be valued at its value on March 1, 1975 or on the date it changes hands or is constructed after that date.
3. limited subsequent value adjustment in value to 2 percent per year or the rate of inflation, whichever is lesser.
4. prohibited the imposition of sales or transaction taxes on the sale of real estate.
5. required two-thirds vote in each house of the legislature to increase state taxes
and a two-thirds vote of the electorate to increase or add new local taxes.
This amendment proved to be extremely difficult to administer. It resulted in hundreds of court cases, scores of new statutes, many attorney generals’ opinions and several additional amendments to the California constitution. One of the amendments permits property to be passed to heirs without triggering a new assessment.
In effect Proposition 13 replaced the property tax with a hybrid tax based on a property’s value in 1975 or the date it was last transferred to a non-family member. These values have been modified by annual adjustments that have been much less than the increase in the market value of the property. Thus it has favored the business or family that remains in the same building or residence for a long period of time.
Local government in California seems to have been weakened and there has been a great increase in fees, user charges, and business taxes. A variety of devices, including the formation of fee-financed special districts, have been utilized to provide services.

01-14-08, 05:12 PM
Good info, c1ue. Here is the great tax shift in a chart:


01-14-08, 07:34 PM
Great post, thank you!

I would put it this way:

Through the 20th centur, local taxes rose higher and higher, and as they did so, local governments started pursuing income and sales taxes to continue their (local government) growth as a percentage of GDP.

I am sure that a chart of absolute taxes (real chained dollars or nominal) would show a pretty continuous increase through the last century.