Of all the taxes employed in the United States, the property tax is perhaps the most familiar and mundane, yet it is certainly among the least understood.
Despite its long history, the tax remains an enigma. Economists are uncertain as to who pays it and unsure on the basic issue of whether the tax is progressive or regressive. Administrators generally have been unable to figure out how to value property uniformly. Policy makers are unsure and divided on whether to give up on the property tax, in effect acquiescing in the trend toward narrowing the tax base and limiting the rate, or to shore up the tax in an effort to restore its revenue productivity. Taxpayers themselves are typically in the dark over what determines the overall level of property taxes, how an owner's tax bill is calculated, and where the money goes.
Especially in the taxation of business property, uncertainties abound. Are owners of business property somehow different, in terms of taxpaying ability, from owners of other property such as homes or farms? Should different kinds of business property--land, improvements, inventories, machinery, equipment, intangible assets-- be taxed the same way? And if not, what differences are appropriate? To what extent is property investment in a particular location affected by the tax levied upon such property?
These are just a few of the unsettled questions about business property taxes. Economic change, coupled with technological advance, has made state property tax laws obsolete to some degree as they apply to business property. New forms of property have emerged--franchises, computer software, intellectual property, and other forms of intangibles--to which existing laws apply only imperfectly, if at all.
Disparities in assessment levels, sometimes of long standing, between business and other kinds of property have sometimes been ratified in state constitutions and statutes. Meanwhile, growing concern over interstate competition has intensified pressure to exempt certain footloose industries or kinds of property, causing the tax to fall at ever higher rates on an increasingly narrow base.