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Rell's Cap Plan Worth A Look

Column By RICK GREEN

February 08, 2008

If Democrats are really concerned about your wallet, why is Gov. M. Jodi Rell's property tax cap idea again getting laughed out of Hartford?

Rell this week repeated her idea to phase in a 3 percent cap on local property tax increases, a proposal that she says is flexible. Democratic legislators and many town leaders around the state say that the idea is preposterous and predict that it would lead to layoffs of police, teachers and firefighters.

"I'm not interested," House Majority Leader James Amann said, responding to the governor's initiative. "Dead on arrival."

Really? I'm not interested in appointing another pointless commission to research the problem further. I'm not interested in another round of confusing tax credits that fail to address the real issue that never goes away: Property taxes are the wrong way to fund the biggest local expense our schools.

Rising property taxes are driving jobs out of the state and longtime residents out of their hometowns.

"We can't keep our budget under 3 percent. How can they?" state Rep. Cameron Staples, chairman of the finance committee, said to me when I asked why it wasn't at least worth discussing the governor's plan.

Republicans aren't much better. I could barely find one in Hartford or one running a town around the state willing to stand up for the idea of a tax cap.

Sure, Rell's idea is simplistic and lacks creativity: Cap spending, and if towns want to spend more, local residents must approve a referendum. It doesn't work unless the state pays for more of the local budgets. The obvious answer that Rell and Republicans don't like to talk about is that a property tax cap will require an expanded income tax. This isn't pleasant, but it's more fair.

A cap could encourage towns to accelerate more sprawl-style development to generate more property tax revenue, but that might be discouraged if the state created the right incentives for housing and other development in our downtown areas.

Our leaders should take the tax cap as a starting point for discussing real reform, instead of obfuscating for another year.

The latest bogus government commission that "studied" tax reform over the past year has come up with nothing. This is what happens year after year, because no politician really wants to challenge the way we do things.

Instead, legislators in Hartford and Washington are falling all over themselves to hand out money they don't have in the name of an "economic stimulus." We don't need government checks that will be spent at Wal-Mart or Best Buy. We need to make this state more affordable over the long term.

That's why I'd like to see Rell get a fair hearing on her idea, because making it more affordable to own a house would be a real stimulus for Connecticut. More than 40 other states have some kind of property tax limit. Elliot Spitzer, the Democratic governor of New York, is considering one.

Of course, it's flawed. Yes, it might create confusion and uncertainty. Good, because stale promises of reform go nowhere. We need to come up with a more fair and equitable way to fund our schools, such as the income tax. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities is correct when it says that the solution "has to be comprehensive and wide-ranging."

All of this might force towns to start banding together to provide public works, police and fire services. It might give towns and cities a little more backbone when negotiating with labor unions.

It never, ever seems to be the right time to take up property tax reform. This year, why not take Rell up on her offer or bluff and "design a cap that we all find workable."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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