A new wave of property tax relief appears to be on the way to low- and middle-income Minnesotans, courtesy of a DFL-controlled Legislature and DFL governor who are eager to tell voters that they ended a dozen-year run of property tax increases.
An accord last week by House and Senate conferees appears to assure enactment this week of the second major tax bill of the 2014 session. It features a one-time, $24 million boost in refunds for homeowners and renters who are paying property tax bills that are disproportionately high relative to their incomes.
In addition, it sends a one-time $17 million refund to owners of agricultural land who were socked with unusually high tax bills this year, largely because of a spike in farmland values. The market-value-based credit for agricultural homesteads for future years also is increased in the proposed measure.
These provisions enjoy broad bipartisan support, particularly in the House, where all 134 seats are on the ballot this year. That stands to reason. Incumbents love to send money back to taxpayers in an election year.
But we hope that Senate conferees yielded to the House’s preferences for reasons that go beyond electioneering. DFLers have long sought to hold down property taxes for the sakes of homeowners and renters of modest means. But only in recent years, and particularly in the House under the tutelage of Taxes Committee chair Ann Lenczewski, have DFLers acknowledged that the best way to achieve those ends is to send state aid directly to the people who need it most, via means-tested credits.
DFLers also have championed state aid for schools, cities and counties. They’ve often claimed that sending money to local governments holds property taxes down. Almost as often, they’ve been disappointed when annual tax tabs are tallied. That would have been the case this year in the wake of last year’s increases in city and county aid, but for the mitigating effects of $133 million in income-based property tax refunds also enacted in 2013.
Lenczewski, a Bloomington DFLer, says she sees ample reason for the state to help property-poor counties and municipalities pay for basic services that might not otherwise be available. But when property tax relief is the desired end, local government aid (LGA) and county program aid are inefficient and unreliable means, she rightly argues. For example, they do little for lower-income residents of communities with tax bases too large to qualify for LGA.
The Senate got its due in the form of a partial reversal of one of the accounting “shifts” that state government employs to keep its budget balanced during recessions. The conference committee accord eases by $23 million, or about 10 percent, the amount of estimated June sales tax receipts that retailers are required to remit to the state as a prepayment for that month, to beat the end of the state’s fiscal year on June 30.
From the state’s perspective, unwinding that shift is akin to rebuilding a hidden reserve fund. From retailers’ view, it’s modest relief from a cash flow inconvenience. Either way, it should be down payment toward full elimination of the June accelerated sales tax remittance in 2015-16.
Left behind was Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to increase a refundable income tax credit for child care expenses, which would have reached 100,000 low- and middle-income families with young children. A good argument can be made for society extending a stronger helping hand to families of modest means who struggle to provide basic necessities for the next generation. Incentives for such families to enroll their children in quality preschool programs would be in the whole state’s interest.
But those incentives would be better provided via a subsidy that reduces each week’s preschool tuition, not a credit that families collect at the end of a tax year. Several avenues for such subsidies already exist in law.
Enlarging sliding-fee child care subsidies and preschool scholarships would be faulted in some quarters as spending increases. But there’s a reason that tax credits are also known as “tax expenditures.” Tax credits are a useful policy tool when they provide the most direct means to an end, say, property tax relief. When a tax credit is indirect, inconvenient or costly to administer, policymakers should opt for the kind of spending that doesn’t involve the state tax code.