"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

Personal property tax: What it is …


For those who have to pay it, the personal property tax must be one of the most aggravating.

Many Idahoans probably don’t know much about it – don’t often encounter it – and may have wondered what the deal was when a report about the Idaho personal property tax was released by the state Tax Commission last week. It may be one of the least liked taxes among small businesses; under its terms, businesses have to itemize things like office equipment – furniture, computers and much more – and estimate their value, with taxes to be paid on them. The taxes have not been massively high, but in relative terms the paperwork can be extensive.

Unsurprisingly, there’s been a movement for some years to eliminate the personal property tax, and it’s picking up steam. (The lobby at the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry is working on it, for one, following up on lobbying it did last year.) Prospects are fair or better that the personal property tax in Idaho may be amended or maybe even eliminated next session.

At the same time, not a lot has been known about it – what it raises, where it goes, what it covers.

Some of that information gap ended with the Tax Commission report’s released on December 18, and it should provide the information base around which debate will run. It’s the first report on the subject the commission has ever released. After reading it, you suspect it won’t be the last.

It tells us, for example, that the PPT brings in about $140 million a year. Split among the hundreds of local government districts (the sewer districts get $12,852), that’s a fairly small piece of the tax pie. Even so, $140 million would make a dent of some kind, especially in the cities and counties, if it abruptly went away.

A close read of the report suggests, though, that changes could be made that might ease its often onerous nature without cutting away all the revenue – and in fact the personal property tax probably due for some good review and a legal rewrite anyway.

One memo in the report (dated October 26) concerns “operating property,” which relates to certain mainly industrial types of business. There (in many cases at least) the “personal property” is deemed to be almost anything other than land and buildings. In addition to the furniture, electronics and office equipment, the “personal property” includes telephone poles, power pumping equipment, rail cars, line pipe, oil tanks, water hydrants – a whole lot of stuff you don’t really think of as “personal.”

Some of that may be questionable, because the memo adds: “These are under the assumption that everything but land and buildings are personal property. Any assumption can be made as there are different interpretations on the definitions of what is real and what is personal property, particularly in the area of conduit, pipe in the ground and various fixtures which are strongly attached to the buildings …”

There is, in other words, plenty of room to maneuver here. And the surprise may be that there have been more lawsuits over this uncertainty.

If only to clear up the confusion, this looks like a legislative topic for 2013.

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