The Case for the Property Tax Circuit Breaker
When applied to property tax relief, the term circuit breaker is used to describe programs that provide benefits directly to taxpayers, with benefits increasing as claimants’ incomes decline. As an electrical circuit breaker stops the flow of electrical current to protect a circuit from overload, a property tax circuit breaker is a policy mechanism designed to stop property taxes from exceeding a claimant’s ability to pay, protecting the taxpayer from property tax overload.
A clear definition is critical since most states with true circuit breaker programs do not use that term to describe them. For example, Maine calls its circuit breaker program the Maine Property Tax and Rent Refund Program. Meanwhile, some states use the term to refer to property tax relief programs in which relief does not vary with income. In Indiana, a program is called a circuit breaker even though the program ties relief to property value, not to income.
Over the last 40 years, two-thirds of the states and the District of Columbia have adopted state-funded circuit breaker programs. Each of these programs satisfies the circuit breaker definition described above. However, the design of these programs, and consequently their effectiveness, varies considerably. Properly designed circuit breakers can target property tax relief more precisely and with less expense than broad-based mechanisms such as homestead exemptions and assessment caps.
Recommendations for a Circuit Breaker Program
We offer 7 recommendations designed to obtain maximum benefit when creating or reforming a circuit breaker program. The New York case study presents the efforts of one state trying to reform its circuit breaker program (box 1).
Provide property tax relief to owners and renters of all ages.
Currently, more than two-thirds of state circuit breakers do not cover non elderly households, and a quarter of programs do not cover renters. Restricting eligibility to seniors is based on the false assumption that age is a good proxy for property tax burden. In fact, while the elderly have higher property tax burdens on average, Census data show elderly and non elderly homeowners both devote about 35 percent of their incomes to all home ownership costs combined.
Furthermore, circuit breakers eliminate the need to use age as a rough proxy for property tax burdens since they target relief based on each household’s income and property tax liability. States should also provide circuit breaker benefits for renters, because they pay property taxes indirectly as part of their rent and they generally have lower incomes than homeowners. States that cover renters typically estimate renter property tax payments by specifying a percentage of rent equivalent to property taxes, most commonly 20 percent.
Avoid low income ceilings and restrictions on maximum benefits.
Many circuit breakers fail to provide meaningful tax relief because they have low income ceilings that exclude middle-income households, or low limits on maximum benefits that result in inadequate relief. For example, Oklahoma’s circuit breaker program restricts eligibility to claimants with incomes below $12,000 and caps relief at $200. In 2008, almost three-quarters of state circuit breaker programs had income ceilings below the national median household income of $50,223. In the current fiscal crisis, states should take care to set appropriate limits to restrain the cost of circuit breaker programs without rendering these programs ineffective.
Use a multiple-threshold circuit breaker formula.
States use three basic types of circuit breaker formulas: threshold, sliding-scale, and quasi circuit breakers. Threshold circuit breakers are the only type that bases tax relief directly on property tax burdens—that is, the percentage of income spent on property taxes. Using multiple thresholds will result in a more progressive distribution of benefits.
Threshold formulas provide a benefit for the portion of a claimant’s property tax bill that exceeds set percentages of income. For example, the Massachusetts circuit breaker, which is limited to taxpayers over age 65, uses a 10 percent single-threshold formula. The taxpayer is responsible for the entire tax bill up to 10 percent of household income, while the circuit breaker benefit offsets the tax bill above this threshold, up to a maximum benefit of $960.
Multiple-threshold formulas set multiple threshold percentages that increase from the lowest income bracket to the highest, with these thresholds usually applied incrementally like a graduated income tax. Maryland uses four threshold percentages: the circuit breaker benefit offsets any property tax liability above 0 percent of income for the first $8,000 of income, above 4 percent for the next $4,000 of income, above 6.5 percent for the next $4,000 of income, and above 9 percent for income of $16,001–$60,000.
Sliding-scale formulas reduce property taxes by a set percentage for each income bracket, with lower relief percentages for higher income brackets. All claimants in a given income bracket receive the same percentage of relief regardless of their property tax bill.
Quasi circuit breakers use multiple income brackets to target benefits to low-income households; benefits are determined without reference to a claimant’s property tax bill, except that they cannot exceed the actual property tax paid. A few states use hybrid circuit breakers that employ elements of all three types of formulas.
Ensure reliable state funding.
Even generous circuit breakers can become ineffective without reliable state funding. Circuit breaker benefits should be treated as an entitlement, rather than relying on budget appropriations that can result in pro-rated benefits (as in Iowa), unpredictable annual changes in formulas (as in New Jersey), or elimination of benefits in some years (as in California). Unpredictable fluctuations in circuit breaker benefits are difficult for taxpayers to manage and can have potentially dire consequences on household budgets.
Given the disparities in property wealth across municipalities, it is important for circuit breakers to be funded by the state, rather than at the option of local governments. Because of differences in program design and participation levels, the costs to state governments of existing circuit breaker programs vary considerably, ranging from .004 percent to 6.3 percent of property tax collections among 14 states where program cost data are readily available (Bowman et al. 2009, 20).
Use copayment requirements with threshold circuit breakers.
States that use threshold formulas should relieve only a portion of property taxes exceeding the threshold. The remaining difference between the taxes exceeding the threshold and the circuit breaker benefit may be considered a copayment. Copayment requirements are important for avoiding inefficient increases in local spending. If a circuit breaker shields taxpayers from 100 percent of any property tax increase, they have no incentive to scrutinize increased local spending since they will benefit from better public services without any increase to their tax bill.
Deliver circuit breaker benefits in a timely and visible way.
States use three methods of distributing circuit breaker benefits: rebate checks, income tax credits, and property tax credits or exemptions. A property tax credit reduces the tax bill based on a property’s full assessed value, while an exemption reduces a property’s assessed value.
Providing benefits through a property tax credit or exemption has two key advantages over rebate checks or income tax credits. First, taxpayers receive an immediate reduction in their property tax bills instead of facing a delay between the date they pay their property taxes and the date their circuit breaker application can be processed. Second, taxpayers observe the benefit as property tax relief instead of mistaking an income tax credit for income tax relief. Since renters do not pay property taxes directly, their circuit breaker benefits can be dispersed through a rebate check.
Use a public outreach campaign.
Low participation is a common problem among existing circuit breaker programs. Taxpayers will not apply for benefits if they are not aware of the program, or if they do not believe they qualify for benefits. To increase awareness and participation, states may promote programs through print advertising, broadcast media, and/or speaking tours. The Internet is a particularly useful and low-cost tool for circulating up-to-date program details including deadlines, contact information, printable claim forms, or online applications. Some states are able to enlist the help of nonprofit organizations in promoting participation if the group views the circuit breaker program as supporting its mission. For example, the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts promotes that state’s program as part of its efforts on behalf of the elderly.
Lincoln Institute of Land Policy – Property Tax Relief – The Case for Circuit Breakers
We believe that a property tax circuit breaker could be better for taxpayers than homestead exemptions. Whereas homestead exemptions apply to everyone regardless of income, it typically applies to low-income home owners while leaving out low-income renters.
- Use property tax circuit breakers instead of homestead exemptions and assessment caps.
- If property tax circuit breakers for renters aren’t possible, use a state EITC to assist low-income families that rent
- If property tax circuit breakers and a state EITC isn’t possible, amend the Texas constitution to increase the welfare spending limit
- Pass a comprehensive package of wage and paid leave reforms to assist low income and middle class families