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I his report focuses on one of the most distinctive features of the U.S. system of federalism—the federal government's immunity from state and local real property taxation. Specifically it examines whether it is time to modify or even eliminate the exemption and presents recommendations to the Congress to authorize a comprehensive system of payments in lieu of real property taxes designed to compensate, on a full tax equivalency basis, state and local governments for the revenues lost due to the exemption.
The call for a rationalization of the current system is not new. Public land ownership has been an issue of heated debate throughout this century. And the Kestnbaum Commission, the "early ACIR," addressed this subject in a 1955 report. The commission recommended that the national government inaugurate a broad system of payments in lieu of property taxes to state and local governments as “necessary to help preserve financially healthy local governments.”
Since that time the scope and dimension of the issues associated with federally owned real property have grown. Not only has the federal government added billions of dollars of real property to its total holdings, but there is every indication that it plans to increase its real property holdings in the future. According to a 1979 report of the U.S. General Accounting Office, the federal government is authorized to
acquire $4 billion of private land during the next 11 years. Accordingly, by examining the issue of the tax status of this federal property, the Commission is not only preserving a link to its past but, in addition, is adhering to its longestablished practice of discussing at an early stage emerging policy problems that are likely to require remedial legislative action.
Except for a 1970 report of the Public Land Law Review Commission, which focused only on the narrow issue of the treatment of certain “open space" lands (recreation, watershed, national park areas), the federal government had not reexamined the payment in lieu of tax issue since the Kestnbaum report.
The 1976 Payments In Lieu of Tax Act and a 1978 report by this Commission again broke the ice in this very important area of federalstate-local taxation. Responding to P.L. 94-565, a general law which provides compensation to states and localities for National Forest and most other types of underdeveloped federal land, the Commission published The Adequacy of Federal Compensation to Local Governments for Tax Exempt Federal Lands (A-68). However, even that study still left unexamined the question of how "nonopen space" federal property should be treated in our intergovernmental fiscal system. Concern regarding the proper fiscal treatment of this property by both members of the Commission and members of Congress led the Commission, at its fall 1978 meeting, to request that the staff undertake an examination of the intergovernmental implications of nonopen space federal properties with specific attention directed toward the question of whether Congress should enact some form of payment in lieu of tax program designed to compensate state and local governments for the property tax loss due to the federal presence.
The major conclusions, findings, and recommendations of the Commission's work are presented in Chapter 1 of this volume. The remainder of the report provides a more detailed look at the entire issue of federal payments in lieu of taxes. A second volume of technical appendices will be issued soon.
From this analysis the Commission concludes that there is a persuasive case for a uniform payment, based on full tax equivalency of federally owned real properties, within the existing property tax structure of each respective taxing jurisdiction. The findings and conclusions are based upon extensive staff research, which is supported on firm equity grounds.
The equity issue is seen as at least a two-fold problem:
On the one hand, the federal government has not followed the traditional equity considerations of public finance, which would provide that "like properties be treated alike.” This is manifest in the policy of directly or indirectly paying taxes for federally owned real property in many, but not all, instances. ACIR's own location provides one good example of this problem. Formerly located in the New Executive Office Building, where no taxes were paid for
the building in which it was situated, it is currently located in a privately owned, government-leased building upon which taxes are paid, either through market rental payments to the lessor or through explicit tax escalation clauses (which are built into most GSA leases).
The second and perhaps more important of the major inequities that are mentioned briefly here is the ad hoc method of "compensation” for tax exempt properties, which the federal government has developed over time, as is evidenced by the existence of 57 different federal payment programs. None of these programs provides for a uniform payment for all types of federally owned property. Moreover, many of the payments are the result of negotiations with federal agencies at the local level, rather than being based on any guiding principles of fiscal economics.
Central to the report's analysis is a look at the quantitative aspects of a comprehensive payments in lieu of taxes program, including estimates of the cost of such a program to the U.S. Treasury and the geographic distribution of the payments. The report includes a complete discussion of the pros and cons of the proposal for Congress to authorize a broadpayment program. This discussion ranges from arguments that state and local governments may not actually "need” additional real property tax revenues to the viewpoint that a PILOT-type reform would generate significant economic and political benefits to the federal and state/local sectors alike.
Abraham D. Beame
I his report was coauthored by Robert D. Ebel and Joan E. Towles and prepared in the ACIR's division of Taxation and Finance directed by John Shannon.
The authors wish to especially acknowledge the comments and assistance throughout the writing of the report by Douglas Clark, Federal Provincial Relations Division of the Canadian Department of Finance; Edgar Estep and Virginia Collins, U.S. General Services Administration; John Behrens, U.S. Bureau of the Census; Robert Stein, Rice University; John Rackham, U.S. Postal Service; and ACIR colleagues Will Myers, and Frank Tippett.
In preparing this report the Commission followed its normal procedures of holding a thinkers’ session to respond to the study outline, continually consulting experts in public economics throughout the research process, and formally presenting the draft report to critics for their review prior to sending the final
report to the members of the Commission. Here it is difficult to adequately acknowledge everyone who helped in this effort. The list, however, would surely include the following: Richard Almy, Michael Bell, Barbara Boslego, Donald Boyd, Bob Breezee, Susannah Calkins, James Carberry, Henry Coleman, Peter Crane, Jerry Emrich, Anita Gaven, Susan Jacobs, I. M. Labovitz, Richard Levin, Harry Levy, John Lynch, Ted Masters, John Ross, Charles Stephenson, Jim Stine, and Matthew Watson.
Jacob Jaffe edited the final report and Lavinia Clarke and Ruth Phillips put in endless hours in typing several drafts of this study.
Wayne F. Anderson Executive Director
John Shannon Assistant Director Taxation and Finance