Issues, Tax

Paging Fox Butterfield: Another Jurisdiction Gets a Painful Lesson about the High Price of High Tax Rates

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Since I’m a fiscal wonk, it’s sometimes tempting to overstate the importance of good tax policy. So I’m always reminding myself that

Fox Butterfield Image Credit: VOA Public Domain

all sorts of other factors matter for a jurisdiction’s competitiveness and success, including regulation and government effectiveness (and, for national governments, policies such as trade and monetary policy).

That being said, taxes are very important. In some cases, you could almost say tax policy is suicidally important.

Here’s some of what the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week.

Hartford, Connecticut…is edging closer to joining a small club of American municipalities: those that have sought bankruptcy protection. …The city must pay nearly $180 million on debt service, health care, pensions and other fixed costs in the coming fiscal year beginning July 1. That is more than half of the city’s budget, excluding education.

This sounds like a run-of-the-mill story about a city (like Detroit) that has spent itself into fiscal trouble, mostly because of a bloated and over-compensated bureaucracy.

But tax policy is the story behind the story. Here’s the headline that caught my attention.

As I’ve written before, this is the “Fox Butterfield” version of financial reporting (he’s the New York Times reporter who was widely mocked for repeatedly expressing puzzlement that crime rates fell when crooks were locked up).

Simply stated, it would be more accurate to state (just as it was in Detroit) that the city is in trouble “because of” high property taxes, not “despite” those onerous levies.

Imagine being a homeowner or business with this type of burden.

Since 2000, Hartford has increased its property-tax, or millage, rate seven times. The rate is now more than 50% higher than it was in 1998. At the current level, a Hartford resident who owns a home with an assessed value of $300,000 currently pays an annual tax bill of $22,287, at rate of 7.43%. A West Hartford homeowner with a similar house pays $11,853 at a rate of 3.95%.

Wow, you get to pay twice as much tax on your home simply for the “privilege” of subsidizing an inefficient and incompetent city bureaucracy (not to mention the problem of excessive state taxes).

No wonder some major taxpayers are escaping, leaving the city (and state) even more vulnerable.

…the impending departure of one of its biggest employers, Aetna Inc. …Aetna and the other four biggest taxpayers in the city contribute nearly one-fifth of the city’s $280 million of property-tax revenue. Property-tax receipts make up nearly half of the city’s general-fund revenues.

To make matters worse, the city exempts a lot of property owners, which is one of the reasons for higher tax burdens on those that don’t get favored treatment.

Half of the city’s properties are excluded from paying taxes because they are government entities, hospitals and universities. …In Baltimore, about 32% of the property is tax exempt, and in Philadelphia it’s 27%.

Excuse me if I don’t shed a tear of sympathy for Hartford’s politicians. The city is in dire straits because of a perverse combination of excessive taxation and special tax favors. Combined, of course, with lavish remuneration for a gilded bureaucracy.

That’s the worst of all worlds. It’s Detroit all over again. Or you could call it the local-government version of Illinois.

Needless to say, I don’t want my tax dollars involved in any sort of bailout.

P.S. Though it would be amusing if Hartford politicians thought this bailout application form was real rather than satire.

This is a guest post by Dan Mitchell “a high priest of light tax small state libertarisnism”

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