The Property Tax and Local Finance

By C. Lowell Harriss | Go to book overview

Classification of Property

ARTHUR C. ROEMER

State laws requiring assessors to classify property according to its use proliferated in the last decade. Prior to the 1960s, only three states—Minnesota, Montana, and West Virginia—had adopted property-classification, or split-assessment-roll, laws. In the 1960s, two additional states joined the ranks of states having property-classification systems. In the 1970s, however, nine states, and the District of Columbia, passed laws to put into effect a property‐ classification system. The two states that most recently adopted classifications for properties were Massachusetts and Oregon in 1979. Missouri will probably be the next state to adopt a classified-property tax, the voters having amended the state constitution in 1982 authorizing the legislature to adopt a three-class system.

Instead of a state tax law that applied to everyone in the same way, those states passing laws to put properties into classes created — by design — a tax law that applied differently to different categories of property owners. In effect, property-classification laws are aimed at giving one or more group of property owners an advantage of lower taxes, often at the expense of higher taxes to another group of property owners.

The purpose of a property-classification system is not necessarily to raise more tax revenue; rather, it is a social-policy tool used to determine who should pay what share of the total amount of revenue to be collected. State legislators use the system to shift the burden of tax among various groups of property owners to accomplish social goals, such as reducing taxes on homes and familyoperated farms and stimulating the growth of new or expanding businesses. In addition, classification systems are used as a social-policy tool to make taxes progressive for a group of property owners in the same class—often for familyowned farms and residences.

In states where the constitution allows for classifications and permits the legislature unlimited discretion in determining the number of classes, legislators use this authority extensively to determine social policy. However, if classes are

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