Is it a trial balloon, or just fair warning?
Either way, in 2010, Columbia County voters likely will see a referendum to freeze their property taxes. State Rep. Ben Harbin has filed notice to allow a bill that would call for the referendum as part of the 2010 General Election.
He isn't likely to file that bill until next year, but he's started the conversation by seeking input from local elected officials.
Other than County Commissioner Charles Allen, who campaigned on a "tax freeze" slogan, Harbin is likely to find local officials opposed to the idea, and local residents in favor. It's not hard to see which side wins that argument.
Harbin proposes a floating "freeze"; property would still be reassessed at fair market value, but with a rising exemption to match the assessment. Any tax increases would have to come from actual tax-rate hikes rather than from revenue rising with property value.
Property owners understandably despise such "back-door" tax hikes. Though it's good news when such a large investment as a home or business increases in value, that value doesn't mean anything to a homeowner with no intention of selling - and it's bad news when taxes automatically rise. A freeze would put a stop to such hikes, recouping the value only when a home is sold.
Among the troubling aspects of a freeze is that it violates basic free-market principles. If a tax is to be based on the value of a piece of property, then every piece of property should bear a proportionate burden. A freeze means properties in the same neighborhood can have drastically different tax bills based purely on their sale date.
At the core of the debate is whether citizens trust their elected officials, which is decreasingly likely. The best way to stabilize or reduce taxes is for citizens to insist that elected officials keep tax rates low while reducing their own demands for government services.
A tax freeze or any other artifice is a lazy way out. It ties the hands of elected officials, thus freeing voters from their civic responsibility of holding politicians accountable.
In a state where lawmakers can't even agree on a way to police tax cheats in their own ranks, though, none of them should be surprised when voters jump at the chance to take power from them.
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