Personal property tax repeal: It’s complicated

Alan Dornfest of the State Tax Commission gave the Senate Education Committee a quick — and qualified — overview of the personal property tax issue Tuesday.

“There are many unanswered questions as I stand here today,” Dornfest said.

Among them is what actually constitutes personal property — and how lawmakers might define personal property if they repeal the tax. In the shorthand, the personal property tax covers business equipment and supplies, from furniture to computers down to staplers. But the term can be more broadly defined to include larger items, such as railroad lines and oil pipelines.

Using that definition, the Tax Commission estimates that public schools have a $38.6 million stake in the personal property tax repeal. The personal property tax accounts for 9.2 percent of the $421 million in property taxes schools collected in 2012. The impact, of course, varies from district to district. And Boise and Lewiston — charter school districts that predate statehood — collect unique levies off personal property. In Boise’s case, the impact is $4.6 million; for Lewiston, it’s roughly $2.3 million.

Another question — and a policy question outside the State Tax Commission’s purview — is what the Legislature would choose to do if it repeals the personal property tax. Do lawmakers provide money to offset the repeal, do they prescribe schools and other taxing entities to take a loss, or do they allow this tax cost to shift to other property taxes levied on homes and buildings?

That, too, is a question largely outside Senate Education’s jurisdiction.

A personal property tax repeal bill will start in the House, namely the Revenue and Taxation Committee. If it passes the House, this bill would land in the Senate’s Local Government and Taxation Committee. Senate Education Committee members could get a vote — on the Senate floor, when a personal property tax bill could be one step from Gov. Butch Otter’s desk.