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The Elbert Files: Property tax cut?


My friend K.C. was in the northeast corner of the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park admiring artist Ugo Rondinone’s Moonrise sculptures, which are two oversized heads with ridiculous expressions. 

The pair are among a dozen heads created in 2006. The individual pieces are named for the months of the year. The Des Moines heads are “January” and “August.”  

January has a toothy grin and squinty eyes that suggest malevolence. August’s head is slightly tilted with circular eyes and a flat mouth that mimics a more sympathetic expression.

K.C.’s face was closer to January’s.

“You seem to be in a good mood,” I said.

“Not really,” K.C. replied. “But I just thought of something funny.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“You probably won’t get this,” K.C. said. “It’s the property tax bill that the Legislature passed.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I don’t get it. What’s funny about property taxes?”

“If you listened to news stories,” he said, “you’d think this end-of-the-session law saves taxpayers from impending doom.”

“Doesn’t it?” I asked.

“Heck, no,” he said. “There was never any impending doom. That part was made up to get people’s minds off the really awful stuff they passed earlier.”

“But,” I said, “what about those tax reassessment notices that went out at the end of March telling people their property values had gone up 20-30% or more?”

“Anybody who thought their taxes might actually go up that much wasn’t paying attention,” K.C. said.

“That would be most of us,” I confessed. “So, what did those notices mean?”

“They meant the rollback on how much of your home’s value is actually taxed will be bigger this time. For the vast majority of people, the higher assessed values will be offset by rollbacks.

“Lawmakers created rollbacks more than a decade ago,” he explained, “to guard against the type of increase that a big jump in assessed value could have. Iowa law already says the statewide average property tax increase for homeowners can’t exceed 3%. Some will go up more and some will go up less, but the statewide average can’t exceed 3%.” 

“But isn’t that what the new law they just passed says?” I stammered.

“Yes,” K.C. said. “It’s a redundant version of what the law already says, with a few minor caveats that screw the lid down even tighter on what cities, schools and county governments can spend.  

“Democrats even jumped on the bandwagon without realizing they were being hoodwinked, just like homeowners,” K.C. continued. “And the media joined in by hyping the size of the tax cut, making people think it is something really significant.”

“Isn’t $100 million in savings significant?” I said.

“Not against a state budget of $8.5 billion,” he said. “It’s barely 1% of $8.5 billion.” 

“Besides,” he continued, “look at the way that $100 million in savings is achieved. 

“Off the top, $50 million goes to retirees and another $7 million will go to veterans. That leaves $43 million to be distributed among Iowa’s roughly 1 million-plus homeowners, which means the average benefit for individual homeowners will be less than $40. That’s not even enough to take the wife out for a nice dinner on date night,” K.C. said. 

“The real significance,” he said, “is the Republican majority in the Legislature did this like they did everything this year – without any meaningful input from those most affected. 

“The sad truth is state government is sitting on a surplus of more than $2 billion from unspent COVID relief payments, while they force local governments to make significant cuts up and down the line.

“The Republicans couldn’t even wait for the Legislative Services Agency to prepare a complete fiscal note on what the $100 million property tax cut would do before they approved it,” K.C. said. 

As K.C. turned to leave, he said: “The partial note the LSA did write said community colleges and small hospitals would suffer in rural areas.”

The expression on K.C.’s face no longer looked malevolent. It was more sympathetic, like the August head.


Dave Elbert

Dave Elbert is a columnist for Business Record.

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