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« Cold | Main | Jim Cannon, RIP »

Freeze. Property Tax Freeze, That Is

A week ago last Friday, to little acclaim, the Colorado Supreme Court issued a preliminary ruling allowing the property tax freeze to go forward, pending a final ruling. It's hard to imagine that the Court, having allowed the change to take effect, would reverse itself. Ironically, this ruling may have the opposite effect of what was initially intended.

Localities would frequently adjust property tax rates downward, in order to maintain the dollar amount residents pay. Earlier this year, the Governor pushed through a measure freezing mill levys, which in a rising real estate market would have had the effect of raising propoerty taxes for most of the state's residents. Most localities fund the public schools through their property taxes. Therefore, baarring an equivalent tax cut at the state level, it would have resulted in a net tax increase.

TABOR, the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, requires any change in tax policy which would result in a net tax increase to be approved by the voters. As a result, a lower court ruled the law unconstitutional earlier this year, and stayed its implementation. Last Friday, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court's stay, permitting the freeze to take effect, pending its own final ruling.

On the face of it, it's hard to justify this action from the court. Given the direction of assessments for which the new rates will apply, this is clearly a change in policy raising taxes. Moreover, localities will factor this raise into their budgets, and then cry bloody murder if forced to lower rates again. (No doubt, the press will dutifully report the alleged catastrophic effects on schools, while ignoring the actual catastrophic effects on homeowners' budgets.)

The argument for the policy change will no doubt be that the freeze is actually neutral, since assessments can go both up and down, and the government is merely keeping rates the same. The problem with this argument is that one or two years notwitstanding, assessments almost always go up. Moreoever the law overrides a longstanding policy designed to keep dollar amounts level, with the clear intent of raising taxes.

The irony is that this year, personal assessments are likely to fall, meaning that next year, the freeze will almost certainly cost cities revenue.

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