In 1796, seven of the fifteen states levied uniform capitation taxes.
Taxes based on ownership of property were used in ancient times, but the modern tax has roots in feudal obligations owned to British and European kings or landlords. In the fourteenth and fifteenth century, British tax assessors used ownership or occupancy of property to estimate a taxpayer’s ability to pay. In time the tax came to be regarded as a tax on the property itself (in rem). In the United Kingdom the tax developed into a system of “rates” based on the annual (rental) value of property.
The growth of the property tax in America was closely related to economic and political conditions on the frontier. In pre-commercial agricultural areas the property tax was a feasible source of local government revenue and equal taxation of wealth was consistent with the prevailing equalitarian ideology.
Taxation in the American Colonies
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 end of the war, it was obvious that the concept of equality so eloquently stated in the Declaration of Independence had far-reaching implications. Wealthy leaders and ordinary men pondered the meaning of equality and asked its implications for taxation. The leaders often saw little connection among independence, political equality, and the tax system, but many ordinary men saw an opportunity to demand changes.
Constitutionalizing Uniformity in the Nineteenth Century
In 1796 seven of the fifteen states levied uniform capitation taxes. Twelve taxed some or all livestock. Land was taxed in a variety of ways, but only four states taxed the mass of property by valuation. No state constitution required that taxation be by value or required that rates on all kinds of property be uniform. In 1818, Illinois adopted the first uniformity clause. Missouri followed in 1820, and in 1834 Tennessee replaced a provision requiring that land be taxed at a uniform amount per acre with a provision that land be taxed according to its value (ad valorem). By the end of the century thirty-three states had included uniformity clauses in new constitutions or had amended old ones to include the requirement that all property be taxed equally by value. A number of other states enacted uniformity statutes requiring that all property be taxed. Table 1 summarizes this history.
Table 1 Nineteenth-Century Uniformity Provisions
(first appearance in state constitutions)
- The Tennessee constitution of 1796 included a unique provision requiring taxation of land to be uniform per 100 acres.
- One thousand dollars of personal property and the products of the soil in the hands of the original producer were exempt in Tennessee.
- The Michigan provision required that the legislature provide a uniform rule of taxation except for property paying specific taxes.
- Except for taxes on slaves.
- Nevada exempted mining claims.
- One provision in Idaho requires uniformity as to class, another seems to prescribe uniform taxation.
- Source: Fisher (1996) 57
The political appeal of uniformity was strong, especially in the new states west of the Appalachians. A uniform tax on all wealth, administered by locally elected officials appealed to frontier settlers many of whom strongly supported the Jacksonian ideas of equality, and distrusted both centralized government and professional administrators.
The general property tax applied to all wealth — real and personal, tangible and intangible. It was administrated by elected local officials who were to determine the market value of the property, compute the tax rates necessary to raise the amount levied, compute taxes on each property, collect the tax, and remit the proceeds to the proper government. Because the tax was uniform and levied on all wealth, each taxpayer would pay for the government services he or she enjoyed in exact proportion to his wealth.
The tax and the administrative system were well adapted as a revenue source for the system of local government that grew up in the United States. Typically, the state divided itself into counties, which were given many responsibilities for administering state laws. Citizens were free to organize municipalities, school districts, and many kinds of special districts to perform additional functions. The result, especially in the states formed after the Revolution, was a large number of overlapping governments. Many were in rural areas with no business establishment. Sales or excise taxes would yield no revenue and income taxes were not feasible.
The property tax, especially the real estate tax, was ideally suited to such a situation. Real estate had a fixed location, it was visible, and its value was generally well known. Revenue could easily be allocated to the governmental unit in which the property was located.
Failure of the General Property Tax
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.
Reformers, led by The National Tax Association which was founded in 1907, proposed that state income taxes be enacted and that intangible property and some kinds of tangible personal property be eliminated from the property tax base. They proposed that real property be assessed by professionally trained assessors. Some advocated the classified property tax in which different rates of assessment or taxation was applied to different classes of real property.
Despite its faults, however, the tax continued to provide revenue for one of the most elaborate systems of local government in the world. Local governments included counties, municipalities of several classes, towns or townships, and school districts. Special districts were organized to provide water, irrigation, drainage, roads, parks, libraries, fire protection, health services, gopher control, and scores of other services. In some states, especially in the Midwest and Great Plains, it was not uncommon to find that property was taxed by seven or eight different governments.
Overlapping governments caused little problem for real estate taxation. Each parcel of property was coded by taxing districts and the applicable taxes applied.
Reforming the Property Tax in the Twentieth Century
Efforts to reform the property tax varied from state to state, but usually included centralized assessment of railroad and utility property and exemption or classification of some forms of property. Typically intangibles such as mortgages were taxed at lower rates, but in several states tangible personal property and real estate were also classified. In 1910 Montana divided property into six classes. Assessment rates ranged from 100 percent of the net proceeds of mines to seven percent for money and credits. Minnesota’s 1913 law divided tangible property into four classes, each assessed at a different rate. Some states replaced the town or township assessors with county assessors, and many created state agencies to supervise and train local assessors. The National Association of Assessing Officers (later International Association of Assessing Officers) was organized in 1934 to develop better assessment methods and to train and certify assessors.
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.
During World War II, state and local taxes were stable or decreased as spending programs were cut back because of decreased needs or unavailability of building materials or other resources. This was reversed in the post-war years as governments expanded programs and took advantage of rising property value to increase tax collections. Assessment rose, tax rates rose, and the newspapers carried stories of homeowners forced to sell their homes because of rising taxes
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:
- limited property taxes to one percent of full cash value
- 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.
- limited subsequent value adjustment in value to 2 percent per year or the rate of inflation, whichever is lesser.
- prohibited the imposition of sales or transaction taxes on the sale of real estate.
- 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.
Although Proposition 13 was the most far-reaching and widely publicized attempt to limit property taxes, it is only one of many provisions that have attempted to limit the property tax. Some are general limitations on rates or amounts that may be levied. Others provide tax benefits to particular groups or are intended to promote economic development. Several other states adopted overall limitations or tax freezes modeled on Proposition 13 and in addition have adopted a large number of provisions to provide relief to particular classes of individuals or to serve as economic incentives. These include provisions favoring agricultural land, exemption or reduced taxation of owner-occupied homes, provisions benefiting the poor, veterans, disabled individuals, and the aged. Economic incentives incorporated in property tax laws include exemptions or lower rates on particular business or certain types of business, exemption of the property of newly established businesses, tax breaks in development zones, and earmarking of taxes for expenditure that benefit a particular business (enterprise zones).
The Property Tax Today
In many states assessment techniques have improved greatly. Computer assisted mass appraisal (CAMA) combines computer technology, statistical methods and valve theory to make possible reasonably accurate property assessments. Increases in state school aid, stemming in part from court decisions requiring equal school quality, have increased the pressure for statewide uniformity in assessment. Some states now use elaborate statistical procedures to measure the quality and equality of assessment from place to place in the state. Today, departures from uniformity come less from poor assessment than from provision in the property tax statutes.
The tax on a particular property may depend on who owns it, what it is used for, and when it last sold. To compute the tax the administrator may have to know the income, age, medical condition, and previous military service of the owner. Anomalies abound as taxpayers figure out ways to make the complicated system work in their favor. A few bales of hay harvested from a development site may qualify it as agricultural land and enterprise zones, which are intended to provide incentive for development in poverty-stricken areas, may contain industrial plants, but no people — poverty stricken or otherwise.
The many special provision fuel the demand for other special provisions. As the base narrows, the tax rate rises and taxpayers become aware of the special benefits enjoyed by their neighbors or competitors. This may lead to demands for overall tax limitations or to the quest for additional exemptions and special provisions.
The Property Tax as a Revenue Source during the Twentieth Century
At the time of the 1902 Census of Government the property tax provided forty-five percent of the general revenue received by state governments from their own sources. (excluding grants from other governments). That percentage declined steadily, taking its most precipitous drop between 1922 and 1942 as states adopted sales and income taxes. Today property taxes are an insignificant source of state tax revenue. (See Table 2.)
The picture at the local level is very different. The property tax as a percentage of own-source general revenue rose from 1902 until 1932 when it provided 85.2 percent of local government own-source general revenue. Since that time there has been a significant gradual decline in the importance of local property 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.
The decline in the revenue importance of the property tax is more dramatic when the increase in federal and state aid is considered. In fiscal year 1999, local governments received 228 billion in property tax revenue and 328 billion in aid from state and federal governments. If current trends continue, the property tax will decline in importance and states and the federal government will take over more local functions, or expand the system of grants to local governments. Either way, government will become more centralized.
- Adams, Henry Carter. Taxation in the United States, 1789-1816. New York: Burt Franklin, 1970, originally published in 1884.
- Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. Significant Features of Fiscal Federalism, Volume 1, 1992.
- Becker, Robert A. Revolution, Reform and the Politics of American Taxation. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
- Ely, Richard T. Taxation in the American States and Cities. New York: T. Y. Crowell & Co, 1888.
- Fisher, Glenn W. The Worst Tax? A History of the Property Tax in America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.
- Fisher, Glenn W. “The General Property Tax in the Nineteenth Century: The Search for Equality.” Property Tax Journal 6, no. 2 ((1987): 99-117.
- Jensen, Jens Peter. Property Taxation in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931.
- Seligman, E. R. A. Essays in Taxation. New York: Macmillan Company, 1905, originally published in 1895.
- Stocker, Frederick, editor. Proposition 13: A Ten-Year Retrospective. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 1991.