June 19, 2008

Alabama case contests discriminatory property tax restrictions

In a court case filed earlier this year in Alabama, lawyers for several rural schoolchildren and their parents hope to demonstrate that Alabama’s regressive tax code unconstitutionally disadvantages children in poor, rural counties by limiting the ability of localities to raise a reasonable amount of revenue with which to fund education. The plaintiffs’ approach in this case involves a thorough accounting of the history of Alabama’s property tax, with the intent of demonstrating that these policies were purposely enacted to destroy the ability of counties to pay for African Americans’ educations with money raised from wealthier white landholders. If this approach proves itself effective, the requested remedy is a mandate requiring the governor and legislature to work together to rewrite Alabama’s property tax law in such a way as to make it non-discriminatory.

Though there may be reason to question the use of the courts in securing tax policy reform, what is interesting about this case is the way it demonstrates the unsavory original intent behind many of Alabama’s property tax limitations. The district court hearing the case conceded as much in an earlier case when it stated that “constitutional provisions governing the taxation of property [in Alabama] are traceable to, rooted in, and have their antecedents in an original segregative, discriminatory policy”.

According to the plaintiffs’ official complaint, following Reconstruction, Alabama’s white elites exploited widespread racial resentments in order to gain enactment of their favored regressive tax policies. In the post Civil War period, the tax base, which had been focused on the slave trade, was redirected onto land. But when blacks were enfranchised, wealthy whites who owned significant tracts of land in the “Black Belt” feared that if blacks were granted local autonomy, they would vote to raise property taxes (which would hit hardest those well-off enough to afford significant amounts of property) in order to support their own education. Though the idea of funding public services for the poor with money drawn from more fortunate members of society is hardly controversial today, at the time the prospect of privileged whites having to pay for the education of “inferior” African Americans was extremely unsettling. Limiting the amount of tax that could be levied on property thus became a top priority.

One of the earliest manifestations of this sentiment can be founded in the 1875 Redeemer Constitution. Caps on the rate of property taxation were implemented, largely in order to protect wealthier whites from tax increases in predominately black localities. At the time, and for some years after, manipulative assessment schemes served a similar end.

Later, in 1891, the Apportionment Act explicitly allowed for funds to be transferred from black to white schools. This removed any impetus for whites to increase property taxes to fund their own schools, and made property tax caps even more useful.

Subsequent to these policies came the adoption of the 1901 Alabama State Constitution, still in effect today, which the plaintiffs claim was created with the explicit goal of “disenfranchising blacks and maintaining white supremacy” in the state. That claim seems relatively uncontroversial, as the Constitution established a poll tax, as well as literacy and landowning requirements for voting that kept African Americans effectively disenfranchised and segregated from the rest of society until the 1960s. With blacks disenfranchised, the constitution also established a referendum requirement for all local property tax changes.

In addition to the disenfranchisement of blacks was a solidifying of state-level control of local tax issues. The plaintiffs describe state intervention into local property tax policy as an important “fall-back provision for guaranteeing the maintenance of white supremacy in black majority counties”. Unlike some county governments, the state was certain to maintain a white majority of legislators.

Although discriminatory voter laws, segregation, and inconsistent property assessments were eventually struck down in court in the 60s and 70s, the crippling effects of other Alabama tax laws contained in the state constitution continue to this day. In response to a federal district court ruling that struck down the irrational assessment system that had been used in Alabama for decades, the Alabama legislature passed a “Lid Bill” amendment that was ratified by voters in 1972. The amendment (Amendment 325) established fair market value assessment ratios for all kinds of property (30% for utilities, 25% for other business property, and 15% to residential, farm, and forest lands) and imposed an absolute lid on all ad valorem taxes of 1.5% of fair market value. To see why “split roll” property taxes of this type are a poorly targeted way to shift the tax burden from residents to businesses, see this policy brief from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

A second Lid Bill in 1978 lowered the property assessment ratio to 10% for residential, agricultural, and forest land and measured value not as “fair market value” but rather on the land’s “current use.” Requiring land to be taxed on the value of its current use results in a huge tax break for wealthy landowners and speculators. As the court brief explains, “Seventy percent of Alabama’s land mass is forest land, but due to the 10% assessment ratio and current use provisions of the 1971 and 1978 Lid Bill Amendments, forest land contributes only 2% of all property tax revenue.”

To add yet another layer of unfairness, the Lid Laws revoke local autonomy by requiring a lengthy three stage process if a locality wishes to raise property taxes. First, the locality's commission or council must vote to request that the legislature pass a local constitutional amendment that would raise the locality's property taxes. Then the state legislature must approve the constitutional amendment, with at least 60 percent of both chambers voting in favor. Finally, a majority of the locality's voters must approve the amendment in a referendum. As the icing on the cake, if any member of the Legislature objects to the amendment, then it is sent to a statewide vote (and thus, most people voting on it will not even be subject to the locality’s property taxes). These extremely cumbersome requirements not only undermine local control but also impede the state legislature from promptly dealing with more important state business.

Unlike the debates that had taken place in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the discussion of whether to enact the 1970s Lid Laws was much less openly racist. But with George Wallace, a famous segregationist, in the office of the governor, race was certainly a visible issue. Given the history of Alabama tax policy, it’s not at all surprising that the plaintiffs conclude that,

There is an historical pattern of the racial motives behind the property tax provisions in the Alabama Constitution: There is a direct line of continuity between the property tax provisions of the 1875 Constitution, the 1901 Constitution, and the amendments up to 1978.

But aside from the existence of racial biases in the intent of Alabama tax law, what is more useful to point out is the existence of anti-poor (and as a corollary, anti-black) biases in the effect of the law.

The confluence of anti-tax provisions in effect in Alabama makes obtaining sufficient revenues from property taxes nearly impossible. Alabama property taxes are the lowest in the nation as a share of personal income. According to the court brief, in 2003, Alabama spent $5,908 per K-12 student, compared with a national average of $7,376 per student, making it the fourth lowest ranked state. The correlation between property taxes and school spending is no coincidence and it has serious negative consequences for Alabama schools, and in turn for the state’s long-term economic growth. Many school buildings are old and crumbling, and some are so overcrowded they have been forced to use trailers for overflow classrooms. Alabama is among the bottom ten states in writing scores with 76% of 8th graders writing below grade-level.

But a look only at property taxes and school funding does not provide a view of the full picture. Simply put: low property taxes are not the same thing as low taxes overall. Due largely to unusually high sales taxes and an almost-flat income tax, lower- and middle-income Alabamians actually end up paying a very significant amount of their income in state and local taxes. According to ITEP data, the poorest 20% of Alabama residents (earning less than $16,000 a year) pay about 11.2% of their income in state and local taxes under 2008 tax law. That’s well over two times the percentage paid by the richest 1 percent, or those with average incomes of more than $999,400.

A large contributor to this outcome is the entrenched preference for sales taxes in Alabama’s tax code. Sales taxes are exempted from the referenda requirements in place for raising property taxes, so many localities rely on these to fund schools. Sales taxes run as high as 11% in some parts of Alabama and according to ITEP estimates, the bottom 80% of taxpayers pay over five times as much in sales taxes as they do in property taxes. Sales taxes are also notoriously vulnerable to economic slowdowns. Making matters worse for Alabama’s sales tax is that it is littered with numerous needless exemptions for various goods and services (each of which contribute to the need for such high sales tax rates in the state) while groceries continue to be subject to the tax. Grocery taxes hit the poor the hardest since such a large portion of a poorer family’s income goes to paying for groceries. Alabama is one of only two states where sales tax is fully applied to groceries.

Alabama also has a seriously flawed income tax code. Up through 2005, Alabama required a family of 4 to start paying income taxes on $4,600 of income. This threshold was raised to $12,600 in 2006, but it’s still the fourth lowest in the nation (and a family of four is considered poor if they made less than $19,961 in 2005). Its higher tax brackets kick in at such low income levels (Almost 70% of Alabama taxpayers paid at the top rate in 2006) that the wealthiest 20% of Alabamians actually manage to pay out less of their income in income taxes than the middle 20%. This is in large part because Alabama is one of only seven states that allow a full deduction from state income taxes of federal income taxes paid. Since the wealthy pay much more federal income taxes than the poor and middle class, this sharply reduces the effective tax burden of the state income tax on the wealthy.

How can this be changed? Much of the problem lies with Alabama’s constitution, which has kept Alabama’s tax code among the most regressive in the nation. (Incidentally, the 1901 constitution was only ratified by rigging the vote in Alabama’s Black Belt – the referendum actually lost outside the Black Belt where there was no vote rigging). Entrenching tax policy in the state constitution is never a good idea as it makes it far too difficult to adjust the law to confront new challenges. A movement away from this process would be a great first step.

The legacy of tax unfairness is inexorably linked to the legacy of racial injustice in Alabama. The intentional racial bias in Alabama’s tax system may be less visible today, but effects on low-income Alabamians are still very plain. Aside from all the legal and historical arguments raised by this court case, one thing is clear: the solution proposed by the plaintiffs – that the Governor and legislature work to enact serious reforms to Alabama’s tax system – is absolutely necessary. Alabama property taxes are the lowest in the country and K-12 and higher education have both noticeably suffered as a result. High sales taxes and an essentially flat income tax exacerbate this imbalance. It’s time for Alabama to break away from its humiliating past and enact a tax system designed with 21st century considerations in mind.


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