- Pennsylvania Among 'Terrible 10' Most Regressive Tax States
- February 4 Non-Partisan Training: HOW TO RUN FOR ELECTION BOARD IN 2013: HOW TO RUN FOR COMMITTEEPERSON IN 2014
- Republican Governors Opt-In to Medicaid Expansion
- The Reports of Unions' Death Are Greatly Exaggerated
- Ask Allyson Schwartz to run for Governor
- Mind the gap: Opting Out of Medicaid Expansion Leaves Low-income Families Behind
- Jan. 14 Workshop:HOW TO RUN FOR ELECTION BOARD IN 2013; HOW TO RUN FOR COMMITTEEPERSON IN 2014
- Seth Williams on Guns, Jasmine Rivera on School Closures @PFC Meetup Wednesday
- PA Revenue Strong Midway Through Year; Tax Cut Could Have Big Impact
- What to Make of the Fiscal Cliff Deal?
Recurrent Crises: Budgets
A new day, and a new way and an old crisis. I am sure we've all noticed that Philadelphia's budget problems reoccur every 10 years or so, no matter who is at the helm. A rethink of what should be taxed and how taxed must be at the heart of any and future current debates and policy.
Every crisis puts the most vulnerable programs and people at risk. Why them? Well, they don't have a constituency and advocates with ideas that move beyond traditional nostrums.
How about this idea. Just for thought then action?
Philadelphia's Budget: Everyone's Right
Mayor Nutter’s announcement of today is understandable, yet also avoidable. Understandable because the traditional reaction to an economic downturn in government is to cut services, lay off workers and rethink taxes. Avoidable because all options should be on the table, but are clearly not.
The Mayor is courageous in getting the city and its citizens to face hard facts: in a recession tax revenues, especially business tax revenues start to decline. These revenues are based on the taxation of choices: renting a car, staying in a Philly hotel, buying something nice. The slackening of tax receipts are the small holes below the waterline of the ship of state.
Many disagree on the basics of what a city faced by hard times should do. Advocates for safer streets, clean streets, libraries, culture and public health stand for stable revenue streams to service vital – at times lifesaving – programs. Tax reform advocates, such the our own Inquirer editorialize against freezing the tax cuts in the name of inter-city competitiveness. Both positions are correct, but the false dichotomy of "either/or" prevents true common ground, and a solution to this apparent budget mess.
The Henry George Foundation agrees with the danger of budget cuts, but cannot agree that the only sources of revenue for these essentials are business taxes. Why? Who says?
The assumption that all business owners are 'rich' and ready to be plucked is a myth refuted through any newspaper's business bankruptcies listing. Why must business always be the "go to" source of city revenue? Isn't it time to look for new alternatives? Most employers in Philadelphia are small business owners. Again, look at the city’s tax receipts. Times are hard for them as well. Freezing their tax rate reduction is, we believe, more reflexive than reflective.
The arguments that general tax cuts are not effective in attracting families and business are questionable yet, if valid, cities and states are incredibly committed to the concept, on both sides of the aisle. For example, the new head of the Chamber of Commerce is all for slowing down general tax reduction, but I am confident he still supports tax breaks for the "big dogs" while telling a neighborhood dry cleaner or bodega to pay its fair share.
From Comcast to BlackRock, we suspect the goodies will still flow.
On the other hand, it seems to us that the Mayor is not minimizing the real cash crisis facing the city. About 6% of the budget a year is a lot of money, especially when a budget scalpel is wielded. The voiceless and the powerless are the first to be ignored, and their concerns shelved. Those members of Council who are trying for cost savings on the expense side are probably leading the first wave of effective action, sort of like battening down the hatches at the first sign of an approaching storm.
In a recession - especially in a city with lagging indicators on all sides – business and wage tax revenues are particularly liable to drop dramatically as businesses retrench and job losses mount. Revenue can slip even with rate reductions and a rate freeze can only exacerbate the problem.
The fact is Philadelphia relies on tax revenue from two things – labor and capital - that can be hidden, can vanish, or can flee. Both are being whipsawed. There are few places to hide, especially from high tax rates on those two things.
If all options are indeed on the table, then we'd suggest that the city can come together and ask that revenues be raised from the one resource that is barely nicked by taxation: land values.
Through reforming the property tax, a tax on land value is a stable, efficient and progressive. No economist of any repute denies that a tax on land value makes the most economic sense. Professor Robert Inman has, for years, asked the city institute this simple, efficient and just tax.
By removing the tax on buildings and improvements, the tax penalty for construction is removed without blowing holes in the budget.
Our data indicates that a land value tax, applied even with the current assessments would provide tax relief for homeowners in the most at-risk parts of the city. Notorious stretches of valuable vacant land: the "Grassy Knoll" at 20th and Market, the "Disney Hole" at 8th and Market (so notorious it has its own website), the wide open spaces of upper and lower Broad Streets, and the parking lots that make our Center City blocks look like mouths of smashed teeth, would finally see their owners pay their genuine fair share and contribute to the common good.
To fill our budget hole, and then some, we have to realize that there is community-created value, and privately-created value. Land values are the textbook case of community-created value. The more desirable we think a site is, the higher its value. We, the community need to keep that value for the services we need. Land values can pay for what the community needs and wants.
When we primarily collect privately created value, we have Philadelphia at a clear disadvantage because all other surrounding areas take less of it. It's that simple.
So, let's agree that everyone is right: advocates for city services, the Mayor and the tax reformers. We have to cut taxes on workers and production. We have to provide revenue so that essential programs are not cut; indeed many ought to be increased. The old dueling assumptions that our choices are either high taxes or low services are untenable as our society faces what is likely to be a long twilight period of no or reduced economic activity.
If all options are indeed on the table, then the land value tax idea deserves a seat at that table.
The gulf between "either/or" has to be bridged. We suggest a land bridge.