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A State Considers a Future in Which Schools Can’t Rely on Property Taxes

What would a world without property taxes look like?

In every state, revenue from property taxes is one of the biggest sources of K-12 school funding.

But that could change soon as efforts ramp up in a handful of states to abandon property taxes altogether, or at least as a funding source for schools.

In Nebraska, Republican Gov. Jim Pillen wants to dramatically reduce or even eliminate property taxes without slashing school budgets. Instead, he wants the state to cover the lost local funding by increasing sales tax collections.

Pillen in recent weeks has been barnstorming the state in an effort to garner support for a significant change to property taxes. But he has yet to release a written proposal that spells out details such as whether all property taxes will be eliminated or just those that cover school operating budgets; to what extent increased sales taxes would make up the difference; and how quickly property taxes will be reduced.

He plans to push the issue during a special session of the legislature in the coming weeks.

“The [Nebraska] Constitution’s crystal clear: Our job is to educate our children,” Pillen said on his radio call-in show last month, according to the Nebraska Examiner. “The state of Nebraska is supposed to—not property taxpayers.”

Nebraska is hardly the first state to ponder reducing homeowners’ tax bills, which are rising nationwide as home values surge, but particularly in Mountain West states like Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

It’s not even the only state with a property tax elimination plan currently on the table.

In North Dakota, a former state lawmaker is pushing for a ballot initiative that seeks to eliminate property taxes, potentially costing local governments $1.3 billion in annual revenue.

An anti-tax advocacy group in Michigan is pushing to secure a spot on the November ballot for a similar proposal that could collectively cost school districts $10 billion, according to the Michigan Municipal League, a nonprofit membership association for the state’s local governments.

And in Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott last year endorsed the concept of eliminating property taxes. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in April asked lawmakers to study the issue in time to consider it during next year’s legislative session.

The impulse to reform property taxes stretches across the political spectrum.

Homeowners want smaller bills. Education advocates, meanwhile, have long criticized the K-12 system’s reliance on property taxes, which disproportionately burden residents of low-income areas, exacerbate socioeconomic gaps between white and Black families, and are often derived from faulty or outdated valuations that end up contested in court.

But zeroing out property tax collections altogether would be a dramatic step without precedent, finance experts say. Short-term ramifications, like wresting control over raising revenue away from local school districts, would almost certainly be controversial. And some of the far-reaching consequences are virtually impossible to predict.

“America’s been taxing property for the entirety of its history,” said David Schleicher, a professor of property and urban law at Yale University who researches property taxes and other municipal finance issues. “It would be a wild change.”

Property tax systems are centuries old and widely criticized

The concept of property taxes dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, when the Ur dynasty collected goods from locals to pay for building projects. The famous legend of Lady Godiva, an 11th-century noblewoman, centers on a property tax dispute.

Today, more than one-third of America’s K-12 public school spending comes from local property taxes, according to federal data.

The share of public school revenue from property taxes is much higher in some states—including Illinois (47 percent), Maine (46 percent), Nebraska (48 percent), and New York (50 percent)—than others.

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