Local Government Tax and Land Use Policies in the United States: Understanding the Links

By Helen F. Ladd; Lincoln Institute of Land Policy | Go to book overview

1. Introduction

Helen R. Ladd

The two most important functions of local governments in the United States stem from their power to tax and their power to regulate local land use. The power to tax permits local governments to raise revenue to provide services such as public safety, health, transportation, education and social services. The power to regulate land use permits local governments to segregate land uses, to restrict various types of land use and to slow the pace of local development. The goal of land use regulation is presumably to achieve a 'better' pattern of land use (at least from the perspective of local voters) than would result from the operation of an unfettered land market.

Regulatory tools are used primarily to achieve land use goals and local tax instruments are used primarily to raise revenue. Nonetheless, land use policy and tax policy interact in complicated ways. These interactions, some of which are intended and some of which are not, are the subject of this book. Neither a review of the extensive literature on land policy alone, nor a review of local tax policy, this book focuses on the nexus between the two.


INTRODUCTORY OVERVIEW: WHY EXAMINE THESE INTERACTIONS?

The 19th-century social reformer, Henry George, found it quite natural to look at land and tax policy together. According to George, a tax on land rents would provide the correct incentives for landowners to use their land most productively and would eliminate the need for all other taxes. In particular, it would allow jurisdictions to reduce reliance on other taxes that distort economic behaviour, including the property tax which applies to improvements as well as land. Thus good tax policy would be synonymous with good land policy.

Henry George's ideas, plus the extensive use of the property tax in the United States, have generated a wealth of theoretical research on land and property taxes. Was the self-made economist Henry George correct that a single tax on land is desirable? Is it true that the property tax distorts housing

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