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PROPERTY TAX REFORM GETS IN THE FRONT DOOR

Utah homeowners are just now receiving their 1995 property tax notices. For most, taxes are down because of the Legislature's property tax cut this year.

For others, especially those in Salt Lake County and parts of Davis County, taxes are up some.One might think that after lawmakers cut taxes by $90 million for homeowners and avoided a certain $50 million tax increase previously ordered by the state Tax Commission they would be through with the property tax for awhile.

Not so.

One state senator wants to eliminate the property tax on primary residences altogether.

Other lawmakers want to eliminate the state's share of property tax on homes and businesses, or require a vote of the people before any entity could raise property taxes, or require a public vote on a special school district levy or increase the constitutional level of the homeowner exemption so future property tax shifts could be avoided.

"It is criminal, just criminal, that in America today you can't own your own home - you rent it from the government and get to keep it if you pay taxes," says Sen. Charles Stewart.

Stewart's idea is the most radical, based in part on what happened in Michigan a year ago. The Michigan Legislature eliminated the state property tax that supported schools, then came back later in the year to debate and pass new taxes to make up the difference.

"I wouldn't replace the property tax (with other taxes), not right away. Let every (taxing entity - schools, county government, city government and special districts) justify the need for the money," says the Provo medical doctor.

No doubt Stewart's plan would be vehemently opposed by numerous special interest groups and local governments, which levy hundreds of millions of dollars of property tax and rely on the tax as their main source of revenue.

If business opposed him, fearing a big shift in property tax to them, Stewart says he'd be willing to study taking the property tax off of commercial properties as well.

"But we have to start with primary residences. We can no longer allow the government to tax you out of your house," he says.

Senate Majority Whip Leonard Blackham suggested during the 1995 session the elimination of the state-mandated portion of the property tax, which supports the state's Uniform School Fund. He'd have raised the corporate income tax, severance taxes and other smaller taxes to make up the difference. Homeowners would still pay property tax to their county; city (if they live in one); special district (if they live in one); and their school district's own, separate property tax. Still, at least a third of a home's property tax would be eliminated.

But a variety of groups, including business owners, objected and Blackham's attempt failed. He's now considering reintroducing that plan in 1996.

Sen. Robert Montgomery wants to raise the constitutional exemption for homeowners from the current 45 percent to 60 percent. Businesses may oppose him on that, as well. Last session, to offset a certain shift in tax from businesses to homeowners, lawmakers increased the homeowner exemption from 32 percent to 45 percent, the limit in the state Constitution.

If hot housing markets push homeowner valuations up again next year and the year after, legislators won't have the flexibility to deal with rising taxes they had this year, says Montgomery, a retired surgeon from North Ogden. "If we don't amend the Constitution now and approve the change in the 1996 election, we won't be able to raise the exemption until 1998 or 2000," says Montgomery.Finally, Sen. Howard Stephenson, who is also president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, has asked legislative attorneys to draft bills that would require a public vote of citizens affected by a property tax hike before the local governing body - be it a city council, county commission or school board - could raise their property tax rates. Now local governments can raise property tax rates with just a public hearing.

Stephenson also wants to close a "loophole" in current law that allows school districts to raise the tax rate of their "10 percent of basic" tax. As part of their $90 million tax cut, lawmakers for two years froze the tax take of local entities. If local officials take more in property tax, they must have a public vote to approve the tax hike. But the "10 percent of basic" school levy was exempted from that public vote proviso and seven districts did raise taxes this year without a public vote. Stephenson couldn't be reached for comment on his property tax bills.