Not content to limit themselves to their own budget, Republicans in the Iowa Legislature now are eyeing local governments and their major revenue source: property taxes.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver says he's asked the Ways and Means Committee to look "holistically" at property taxes in Iowa relative to other states.
No proposals have been floated yet, but his starting point is that Iowa's property taxes are too high, citing a study that says Iowa is 13th highest in the country when property taxes are measured against median home values.
It's always amazed us that lawmakers who tout their belief in local control don't shrink from the chance to tell smaller governments what to do, if given the power.
But such has been the case in Iowa for years. Local control is fine, says Big Brother, as long as you do as I tell you.
Already, state legislators have been making noises about going back on their promises to continue backfilling the property tax revenue they drained from local governments with the commercial and industrial tax breaks they approved in 2013 — much of which went to out-of-state corporations, mall owners and nursing homes.
Now, GOP leaders want to take it a step further. Honestly, we'd be happy if they'd just live up to their promises from the 2013 law.
We know that nobody likes property taxes. But the tin ear in Des Moines has never figured out that, around here, we on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River have it relatively good when it comes to taxes on real estate. Our Illinois neighbors tell us that all the time — those who don't move over here.
But what about property taxes on this side of the river?
Iowa Department of Management reports tell us the City of Davenport is levying about $70.5 million in property taxes for fiscal 2019, 8.8 percent higher than it did four years earlier.
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That's an average increase of a bit more than 2 percent per year. It's a bit above inflation, but it still doesn't sound too bad to us.
The largest school districts in our area also have levied only modest increases between those two years. In fact, actual property tax receipts between 2013 and 2017, the latest years available, either remained steady or fell for the Bettendorf and Davenport districts.
In Bettendorf, the story is bit different. In 2019, the city levied for $29.2 million in property taxes, about 19 percent more than it did four years earlier. That amounts to an increase of a little less than 5 percent a year on average.
We won't sit in judgment on which city or school district is doing better by its property tax payers. But we'd ask that Des Moines not do it, either.
Bettendorf voters can speak for themselves. They did just that by turning down the school district's proposal last month to sell general obligation bonds that would have increased property taxes. If Bettendorf voters want to voice their displeasure with the mayor and aldermen in this year's election, they're free to do so.
The same goes in Davenport, where property tax increases have been fairly small — but, as we've observed on these pages, city streets also are badly in need of fixing. Instead of seeing property tax cuts, we'd rather see smoother roads.
We haven't even mentioned that Scott County's sheriff is pushing for major personnel increases, which also could contribute to the board of supervisors increasing property taxes. (By the way, Scott County has increased the amount of property tax it has levied by less than 2 percent per year since 2014.)
All of this is trying to make the point that our local governments are better situated to make their own tax and spending decisions. They don't need the heavy hand of Des Moines to guide them. (We think state lawmakers have enough to do straightening out the Medicaid mess and, incidentally, fixing last year's rushed-through income tax cut.)
As for nationwide property tax studies, we would urge caution. Property taxes vary widely, even within states, and generalizing about them is a difficult thing to do.
The bottom line for us is this: There's plenty the state legislature could do to make things better in Iowa. Meddling with local government budgets isn't one of them.