Sutherland Newsletter – August 5, 2010


By John Merrifield


How can policymakers make Utah’s tax systems more accountable to citizens and to taxpayers?  How can society establish reasonable and appropriate limits on lawmakers’ taxing power?


One purpose of the Center for Limited Government is to help develop principle-based policies that address these questions.  Responsible citizens also must grapple with these concerns if ordered liberty and economic prosperity are to be protected.  Fortunately, in Utah a part of the answer to these questions is a process called “Truth in Taxation,” which was incorporated into the state’s property tax system in 1985.


Utah’s Truth-in-Taxation laws require city and county governments and school boards to hold a public hearing and take a vote if they want to increase the property tax burden beyond the level of “new growth” (revenues that stem from land-use changes as population grows).  In Utah, property tax rates automatically decrease as property values increase, which limits the expansion of citizens’ property tax burden and means that local-government revenue from citizens’ property taxes stays fairly level from year to year.


In contrast, in areas of the United States such as in San Antonio, Texas (where I live) property tax revenues will often increase during times of rapid economic growth or when property values are vigorously reassessed, spurring expansions of government that then become very difficult to reverse.  Unfortunately, these increases in the tax burden do not require a vote by policymakers, and public accountability subsequently suffers.  Worse still, a reassessment-driven increase in property taxes does not come with an attendant increase in homeowner income, so such tax increases occur without any consideration of a taxpayer’s ability to pay for them.


In Utah, local government and public school leaders can only increase citizens’ property tax burden if they first hold a well-publicized Truth-in-Taxation hearing.  This hearing allows citizens and taxpayers to publicly voice their opposition to or support of the proposed tax increase before the decision-making body votes on the proposal.  These requirements have made Utah’s property tax system more accountable to the citizens and taxpayers that fund it.


As a byproduct of this expanded accountability, the taxing power of local policymakers has been appropriately limited.  In the four years prior to the implementation of Truth in Taxation, property tax revenues went up at an average rate of 12 percent per year.  After 1986, property tax increases fell to an average of 3.6 percent per year.  Since 1986, on average, 40 of Utah’s roughly 550 local taxing authorities have annually proposed to increase property tax rates, and in many cases these were simply small increases to account for inflation-driven cost increases.  Not surprisingly, Utah has one of the lowest per-person property tax burdens in the nation according to the non-partisan Tax Foundation (39th out of 50).


It seems clear that Utah’s Truth-in-Taxation laws have helped make Utah’s property tax system more accountable while simultaneously limiting its capacity to undermine freedom.  Imagine the implications for government today if the principles of the Truth-in-Taxation process were extended to other levels of government and other tax systems.


For instance, would the recent explosion in federal deficit spending have occurred if members of Congress were required to hold town hall meetings before voting on the federal budget?  Further, what would Utah’s political environment and landscape be like if state representatives and senators had to hold a town-hall meeting in their respective legislative districts to receive citizen input before voting to increase the income tax burden?


A Truth-in-Taxation process for Utah’s income tax system would have to be carefully crafted to prevent harmful unintended consequences.  On the other hand, it would also likely bring heightened accountability and greater limits to the state income tax system, just as it has done in the case of property taxes.  Further, such a law would help ensure that state income taxes do not become an enemy to ordered liberty and economic prosperity.


It’s worth thinking about.


Author John Merrifield, Ph.D., is a member of the economics faculty at the University of Texas at San Antonio and adjunct fellow of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Limited Government.  He also serves as the editor of the Journal of School Choice and director of the E.G. West Institute for Effective Schooling.  Dr. Merrifield has written several books, peer-reviewed journal articles, and book chapters in his primary teaching and research fields that include public finance.



by Bryce J. Christensen and William C. Duncan


Ensuring that the link between family and liberty remains strong is a prime commitment of the Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society.  Based on this commitment, pro-family conservatives ought to be natural allies of the Tea Party movement.


The Tea Party response to the dramatic expansion of government in the last two presidential administrations has usefully highlighted the serious threat to liberty posed by a large, active and centralized state.  The movement has also focused attention on crucial responses to this threat, ranging from reclaiming the historical role of states to decreasing government spending to eliminating wasteful government programs.


Similarly, pro-family conservatives have long been proposing solutions that would limit the scope and reach of the centralized state because they understand the intrinsic connection between family and liberty.


As Robert Nisbet noted, the “treatment of the family” is an important indicator of the stance of a political philosophy towards liberty.  The authoritarian tradition regards the family as something “to be obliterated,” while for the tradition reflected in the thinking of Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, “the family is declared vital to the achievement and preservation of freedom and order alike in society” (Robert Nisbet, “The Pursuit of Equality,” Public Interest, Spring 1974: 103).


Authoritarian governments insist that there be no barrier between individuals and the state.  In the infamous phrasing of Benito Mussolini: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”  The centralized state seems naturally to demand complete allegiance, sometimes through naked threats but more often by offering security through cradle-to-grave welfare entitlements.  These, of course, come with strings attached and accepting government largesse seems inevitably to enervate the spirit of independence.


Conversely, the strength of family ties derives from their origin in an ethic of obligation rather than of force.  Families nurture the ability of individuals to meet unchosen obligations, free from coercion.  The family exercises an authority completely independent of, because not derived from, the state.  The Utah Supreme Court has explained that “the rights inherent in family relationships – husband-wife, parent-child, and sibling – are the most obvious example of rights retained by the people.  They are ‘natural,’ ‘intrinsic,’ or ‘prior’ in the sense that our Constitutions presuppose them, as they presuppose the right to own and dispose of property” (In re J.P., 648 P.2d 1364, 1373, Utah 1982).  These inherent rights provide a powerful barrier to the overreaching state, standing between the individual and the government and providing an independent source of identity, protection, purpose and provision.


The state threatens the independence of the family, and by extension, liberty by co-opting its existence and usurping its functions.  Thus, when the government begins to compete with parents to inculcate the virtues of citizenship in children, liberty suffers.  When the state asserts that it can redefine family to ignore its traditional touchstones like biological ties and marriage relationships, liberty suffers.  When, in the name of enhancing individual autonomy, the state colludes with a disloyal spouse to end a marital relationship and thus, extend its own jurisdiction over all of the family’s interactions, liberty suffers.


The more families are allowed to do, independent of government control, the more freedom will be enhanced.


So, along with cutting taxes, reining in public spending, and eliminating agencies, friends of limited government should promote measures that strengthen the autonomy of the family unit and that limit government interference in family functions.


Among the measures that would accomplish these ends would be:
• ending the governmental collusion in family breakdown inherent in the no-fault divorce system;
• providing meaningful parental choice in education, from protections for home and private schools to requiring parents to opt-in to controversial elements of curricula (rather than forcing them to opt-out when they have objections);
• allowing families to keep more of their income by using tax formulas such as income splitting.
These ideas would, of course, just be a start.


In a state like Utah, surely the connection between strong and independent families on the one hand and liberty and self-reliance on the other should make sense.  It is the legacy of our pioneer past.  The Center for Family and Society will continue to work to ensure that this legacy continues into the future.


Co-author Bryce J. Christensen, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Southern Utah University and adjunct fellow of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He is a contributing editor to The Family in America and author of Divided We Fall: Family Discord and the Fracturing of America (Transaction, 2005). He has also published articles on family issues inSociety, The Public Interest, Policy Review, Modern Age, and other journals.


Co-author William C. Duncan, J.D., is director of the Marriage Law Foundation and is the director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.