Obviously, real property taxes are based on accumulated assets while income taxes are based on current earnings. Retired people and the elderly may have low income, but own significant amounts of property accumulated over a lifetime. At the other end of the spectrum, "twentysomethings" with a well-paying job may still be renting (or even living with parents), while they enjoy the good times or accumulate enough capital to purchase their first home.
So the property tax rate, and the income tax rate, impact generations differently. As Virginia's population of Baby Boomers gets older, the politics of taxing Social Security benefits and military retirement will continue to shift. Those between 18-30 years old and not registered to vote are, by default, allowing the older generations to shape the tax burden in their favor.
There's a simple spatial pattern to the impact of taxes, as well as a generational pattern. In 1997, the average wage for a job in Virginia was 40% higher in metropolitan areas ($30,892) than the average wage for a job in rural areas ($21,986).
Both George Allen and Jim Gilmore tried, as governors, to reduce state funding for local historical and cultural programs. They suggested state government could be reduced and local cultural activities could be financed by local taxes. Roanoke politicians noted that state-sponsored museums are concentrated in Richmond, too far for school children from the Southwest to visit easily... and the General Assembly has rejected such budget cuts - so far.
When Harry Byrd became the state's premier politician in the 1920's, he restructured the tax system so county officials would collect 100% of the real estate taxes and the state would collect 100% of the income tax. The state income tax rate is the same for all residents of the state, while property taxes vary significantly by city/county. Byrd's restructuring ensured that county officials would have complete control over the property tax, the primary source of funding for school systems.
Rural farmers, the core of Byrd's support, were concerned that the urbanizing areas coming to power in the General Assembly would set a high tax on rural property to finance roads, schools, and social welfare projects in the cities. Farmers had substantial property, but relatively low cash income compared to residents in urban areas such as Alexandria, Norfolk, and Richmond. The emerging majority of urban voters might be able to force the rural taxpayers to finance major improvements in city schools, using the changing balance of power to redistribute the wealth from the rural minority to the urban majority.
Current political debates regarding how much the state should finance school construction and teacher salaries is another geographic urban-rural story, even though it is presented as a partisan issue in most news stories. See Population, Wealth, and Property Taxes: The Impact on School Funding for more details.
After Byrd restructured the tax system, the General Assembly still had the power to raise income taxes to pay for new services that would benefit primarily the urban areas. However, the urban residents would have to pay most of the extra income taxes. Farmers (with their low annual incomes) would pay a relatively small amount of income taxes, compared to the metropolitan areas. The net effect was that, in rural areas, the local officials kept taxes low on their property, while urban areas raised local taxes to improve their schools. The imbalance in school funding is still evident today.
This sort of regional conflict and political dealing in the General Assembly is not new. A century earlier, plantation owners in eastern Virginia had worried about western representatives raising taxes on slaves to pay for transportation improvements west of the Blue Ridge.
WARNING: If numbers cause your eyes to glaze over, beware the next section. But if you pay taxes in Virginia, or vote, or both, it helps to know the statistics...
If you're going to compare tax rates, be sure to compare apples and apples, not apples and oranges.
The Federation of Tax Administrators has
some excellent tables of tax rates. If you compare the 1996 State & Local Taxes by Source with
the 1998 State Tax Collection by Source, it appears there was a dramatic shift away from the property tax:
|Selective sales taxes||14.5||16.0|
An alternative source is the Bureau of Census - State Government Tax Collections for 1996 and 1998:
(total in thousands of dollars, per capita amounts in whole dollars)
|Code||Tax Source||1996 Total (000's)||1998 Total (000's)||1996 Per Capita||1998 Per Capita|
|T01||Sales and Gross Receipts Taxes, Total||3,588,976||3,911,261||537.67||575.92|
|T09||General Sales and Gross Receipts||1,995,787||2,225,021||298.99||327.63|
|T09||Selective Sales Taxes, Total||1,593,189||1,686,240||238.68||248.29|
|T19||Other Selective Sales||428,507||461,354||64.20||67.93|
|License Taxes, Total||418,817||455,443||62.74||67.06|
|T20||Alcholic Beverage License||6,580||6,685||0.99||0.98|
|T23||Hunting & Fishing License||18,026||19,594||2.70||2.89|
|T24||Motor Vehicle License||257,941||284,253||38.64||41.86|
|T25||Motor Vehicle Operators License||24,074||25,605||3.61||3.77|
|T27||Public Utility License||X||X||X||X|
|T28||Occupation & Business Licenses, NEC||82,461||94,730||12.35||13.95|
|Other Taxes, Total||4,873,812||6,154,994||730.16||906.30|
|T41||Corporation Net Income||362,830||445,659||54.36||65.62|
|T50||Death & Gift||69,398||122,304||10.40||18.01|
|T51||Documentary & Stock Transfer||94,826||126,112||14.21||18.57|
|VIRGINIA, Total Taxes||8,900,413||10,542,966||1,333.40||1,552.41|
Note that the value of utility properties is established by the state, not the counties or cities. This facilitates equitable taxation statewide of property owned by electrical utilities and railroads in particular. Otherwise, a county could assess the value of such property at a high value, and tax it heavily. After al, utilities don't vote... so they maintain skilled lobbying efforts in the General Assembly.