What will become of the car tax?

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1 What will become of the car tax? by John L. Knapp championed by Republican candidate James S. Gilmore III John L. Knapp is professor emeritus at the University reimbursement to localities in exchange for mandated cuts nomics Section, at the University s Weldon Cooper personal transportation. The campaign proposal was made at a have included deputy director of the former Tayloe ise that it would not divert state funds from ongoing programs wealth of Virginia s Division of State Planning and and to maintain state expenditure programs. Division of Industrial Development and Planning, About the car tax Richmond, and budget analyst with the U.S. Depart- became the central campaign issue. Gilmore called for state of Virginia and senior economist, Business and Eco- in personal property taxes on cars and light trucks used for Center for Public Service. His professional positions time of strong state revenue growth and was sold on the prem- Murphy Institute, deputy director of the Common- because there was plenty of money to provide taxpayer relief Community Affairs, economist with the Virginia No tax is popular, but even in the company of other taxes, assistant economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of ment of Agriculture. He is a former member of the the personal property tax on motor vehicles known as the Governor s Advisory Board of Economists and a past taxpayers distaste for this source of revenue. on Federal Statistics, the Association for University restrictions on the rate. Localities had raised effective rates so Association of Economists. car tax was especially unpopular. Four factors contributed to First, unlike many other local taxes, the state imposed no president of the Council of Professional Associations Business and Economic Research, and the Virginia During the 1997 gubernatorial election, the car tax proposal 27

2 they were much higher than real property taxes. In 1997, the taxpayers. According to a 1998 survey, 19 states, including $100 of market value versus $0.61 for real estate.1 Thus, the state or local property or value-based tax on motor vehicles. median effective tax rate on motor vehicles was $2.54 per tax rate on motor vehicles was more than four times greater than for real estate. Second, a much higher proportion of households own motor vehicles than homes. According to the Census Since then, one state Washington has eliminated its tax. Populous states without such taxes include New York, Florida, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.4 Bureau, in the year 2000, 85.8 percent of the nation s house- The reality of abolishing the tax homes.2 The wider ownership of vehicles meant that the car to implement his car tax proposal. The proposal, treated as real estate tax, assuring a larger share of aggrieved voters. Tax Relief Act of The act provided for phased elimi- holds owned motor vehicles while 67.2 percent owned tax was directly imposed on a larger population than the Third, unlike the real estate property tax, which many households pay monthly via a mortgage escrow account, the motor vehicle tax is collected as a lump sum either annually or semi-annually. When car tax relief was being promoted, nearly four-fifths of the total number of cities and counties collected the tax annually with the remainder relying on semi-annual collection.3 It is noteworthy that in populous After winning the election, Gilmore introduced legislation an electoral mandate, was enacted as the Personal Property nation of the tax on vehicles with an assessed value of less than $20,000. The tax was to be reduced by 12.5 percent per vehicle in tax year 1998, 27.5 percent in 1999, 47.5 percent in 2000, 70 percent in 2001, and 100 percent thereafter, provided that sufficient funds were available to finance the program. Reimbursements to individual localities were based on Northern Virginia, most localities collected the tax annually the number of vehicles, their value, the method of valuation Fourth, property taxes on motor vehicles are not widely the tax rate employed by the locality in The program, on Oct. 5, only a month before the election. used in the nation, an unwanted distinction for Virginia 28 Maryland and the District of Columbia, did not impose a Virginia Issues & Answers Winter 2006 (i.e., loan, trade-in, or retail value), the assessment ratio, and which was considered as non-categorical state aid, had one

3 of the most unusual state aid distribution formulas in the nation. Because the program provided reimbursements for foregone tax revenue, localities were not eligible for reimbursements to individual taxpayers in a particular year until taxpayers had paid the portion of the tax not covered by the reimbursement plan. When implementation of the tax began, the state found that initial estimates of the cost of the new law were far below actual outlays a case that had been made by foes during the campaign. Based on survey results, local government associations argued, the cost would be $1.4 billion per year when fully phased in after five years, more than double the $620 million annual cost originally forecast by Gilmore. 5 Funding the expensive program became progressively more difficult with the passage of time. As the phase-in reductions were implemented, outlays indeed proved to be greater than the estimated costs, and the state s revenue picture dimmed. For tax year 2002, the General Assembly froze reimbursement at 70 percent. When the state s finances continued to deteriorate, the General Assembly capped the amount of state aid to localities at $950 million annually with the pro rata share of each locality based on its proportion of the tax year 2004 distribution. How the aid would be applied to individual taxpayers car tax bills was left up to the localities. Based on a recent survey, localities have overwhelmingly chosen to use a specific relief method providing the same percentage for all qualifying vehicles. 6 Thus, what had started out as a state aid program based on reimbursing localities for foregone personal property taxes with no dollar limit on the total amount expended by the state instead had morphed into a state aid program based on the historical distribution of reimbursements in tax year Although the popular perception was that the car tax would be eliminated, that outcome would not have happened under the original legislation because reimbursement was limited to the first $20,000 of vehicle value. With the passage of time, normal inflation would have assured that more vehicles exceeded the limit unless the law was amended to provide a higher limit. Also, the original act did not restrict localities from raising the rates that applied in The state would not reimburse the additional revenue from higher rates, but it would allow them. In fact, since 1997, 34 counties and eight cities have raised their effective tax rates on motor vehicles. 7 In contrast, two localities have reduced their effective rates. Regardless of these changes, the state aid is based on the tax year 2004 distribution, which was tied to 1997 effective rates. Figure 1: Car tax disbursements, FY Source: Office of the Comptroller, General Fund Preliminary (Unaudited) Annual Report for the Fiscal Year ended June 30, 2006 (Aug. 15, 2006). As shown in Figure 1, car tax disbursements rose sharply in the early years as the phase-in took hold. Starting in FY 99, the first-year distribution was $181 million. 8 Disbursements reached $907 million in FY 05 before dropping to $724 million the next year. The large decline was attributable to a shift in reimbursement payments from a tax year to a fiscal year basis. This saved $277 million in payments not made during the last six months of FY The $950 million cap is reflected in the projections for 2007 and Figure 2: Car tax reimbursements as a percentage of the General Fund, FY Sources: Office of the Comptroller, General Fund Preliminary (Unaudited) Annual Report for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 2006 (Aug. 15, 2006) and Secretary of Finance, report to the money committees (Aug. 28, 2006). Note: General Fund excludes transfers. Plots for fiscal years 2007 and 2008 are forecasts. The strain of car tax reimbursement on the state s General Fund is shown in Figure 2. Starting with 1.9 percent of the total in FY 99, disbursement rose to 7.9 percent in After 29

4 that the share dropped to a low of 4.9 percent in 2006 as the General Assembly cut back aid. If the cap of $950 million is fully funded, the share of the car tax will rise to 6.1 percent in 2007 before decreasing to 5.9 percent in Assuming future General Fund growth and no changes in the current legislation, the share of the car tax reimbursement will drop further in subsequent years. Figure 3: Car tax reimbursements and income taxes per capita, 2003 Disparate benefits The lion s share of state aid for car tax reimbursements goes to a handful of urban localities (see Table 1). In fact, seven urban localities located in the three major metropolitan areas account for one-half of the state payout to cities and counties. 10 Fairfax County alone will receive 22.5 percent of the aid in FY Rural, sparsely populated localities, however, will receive the lowest shares: percent for Bath County and percent for Highland County. Table 1: Localities that will receive the largest reimbursements, FY 07 Locality Amount ($) % of City/county Total Fairfax County Virgina Beach City Prince William County Loudoun County Chesterfield County Henrico County Arlington County Subtotal City/county total 211,995,999 55,673,386 55,102,349 41,503,640 40,987,452 37,415,217 31,313, ,992, ,662,429 When standardized by dividing by population, the disparities are greatly reduced but still substantial. Aid per capita varies from $217 in Fauquier County and $207 in Fairfax County to only $28 in Grayson County and $8 in Bath County. Since car values and frequency of ownership rise with income, it is not surprising that state aid for car tax reimbursement is strongly correlated with income. 11 Figure 3 shows plots for per capita car tax reimbursements and per capita state income tax liability for 2003, the most recent year for which income tax data are available Source: Virginia Department of Taxation, Personal Property Tax Relief Act of 1998, Estimates of Reimbursements to Localities, Fiscal Year 2006 Through 2010 (November 2005), pp. B-25 to B-27. (Oct. 16, 2006). Sources: Auditor of Public Accounts, Personal Property Tax Payments, Fiscal Year 2003 as shown on APA website; Department of Taxation, Annual Report, Fiscal Year 2005 Revised July 13, 2006; Weldon Cooper Center 2003 population estimates. The car tax formula now in place also penalizes localities with strong population growth because the distribution will make no allowance for change after tax year A look to the past illustrates the problem. From 2002 to 2005, the localities with the fastest population growth were Loudoun, Culpepper, King George, Prince William, and Stafford. Consequently, all increased their percentage share of total car tax reimbursements. However, under the new law, their shares will remain the same in future years. What next? Since its birth, personal property tax relief has been a contentious issue because of the high cost to the state government. The $950 million cap was a response to a program that exceeded available resources. However, as state finances improve, car tax reimbursement is likely to return as a major issue. There are three major policy alternatives. First, the original provisions of the property tax relief act could be reinstated. If that were done, it is likely that the $20,000 per vehicle limit would be raised. Taking such a step would push the annual cost of relief over $1.5 billion, a cost that would continue to rise year after year as the number and value of vehicles increased. Second, fundamental changes could be made in the original Personal Property Tax Relief Act so that all localities would be reimbursed on the basis of retail value, a uniform assessment ratio of 100 percent of retail value, and a standard tax rate. Such changes would make the distribu- 30 Virginia Issues & Answers Winter 2006

5 tion more fair but they would move away from the original concept of reimbursing localities for actual costs. Third, the personal property tax on vehicles could be eliminated and replaced with a new state aid program based on income tax collections by locality. Such a program would result in a distribution similar but not identical to the current system but far simpler to administer. When car tax reimbursement was inaugurated, the opportunity to change the local taxation of vehicles by requiring localities to keep effective rates in line with those on real estate was lost. Now, the question of how to deal with state aid related to the property tax promises to be a major issue in the future. Endnotes 1 Virginia Department of Taxation, The 1997 Virginia Assessment/Sales Ratio Study (April 1999), Table 3, pp ; and the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, 1997 Tax Rates: Virginia s Cities, Counties, and Selected Towns, 16th Annual Edition, February 1998, Table 9.1, pp Bureau of the Census, U. S. Statistical Abstract: , org/clay/art/05pptra.pdf, accessed on 10/16/06. 7 Ibid, p Reimbursements did not start until the last half of tax year 1998, which was in FY 99. A large part of the first fiscal year payout went directly to individuals who had already paid their car tax for tax year The full amount of the disbursement, $119 million to individuals plus $62 million to local governments, is shown in Figure 1. 9 Auditor of Public Accounts, Personal Property Tax Relief Act Special Review, September 2004, p. 10, available at www. apa.state.va.us/data/download/reports/audit_local/pptra04.pdf, accessed on 10/16/ The total payout will be $950 million. Of that amount, $941.1 million will go to cities and counties with the remainder for incorporated towns. 11 The equation is Y = X (5.3592) (0.0073) Adjusted R2 =0.558 where Y is car tax reimbursement per capita and X is income tax liability per capita. October 2004, Table 691, p Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, 1998 Tax Rates: Virginia s Cities, Counties, and Selected Towns, 17th Annual Edition, December 1998, Table 9.3, pp (The 1998 study was referenced because information on payment schedules was not provided in the 1997 edition.) 4 National Conference of State Legislators, State and Local Value-Based Taxes on Motor Vehicles, January 1998, available at accessed on 10/17/06; Georgia State Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Personal Property Tax on Motor Vehicles, Fiscal Research Center Policy Brief, July 2006, Number 130, p. 10, available at htm, accessed on 10/17/06. 5 Spencer S. Hsu, Virginians Clash on Auto Tax Cut, The Washington Post, June 24, 1997, Final Edition. 6 Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Virginia Local Tax Rates 2006, 25th Annual Edition, November 2006, p. 73. (For a good analysis of payment options for local governments, see Virginia Municipal League, Personal Property Tax Relief Guide and Model Ordinance, May 2005, at 31

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