Rethinking California’s Revenue Structure

California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, who has no particular allergies to progressive taxes, cites an astonishing statistic about California Income Taxes: that 144,000 Californians (out of 38 million) pay half the state’s income taxes. As I will discuss below, this does not necessarily imply that California taxes are, overall, too progressive, but it does mean that state income tax revenue is too undiversified. When such a small share of the population makes up such a large share of the revenue base, the fiscal conditions of the state will swing wildly with the fortunes of a few. This is what we have been witnessing here in California.

On the other hand, California has a very high sales tax as well, and everyone pays it. The best evidence I know suggests that the sales tax is regressive over the short term, but is more or less proportional over the life cycle. There is no question that the size of California’s sales tax dampens the overall progressiveness of state revenue collections.

Finally, there is the property tax, which is completely detached from the ability to pay it, because of Proposition 13. Within a condominium complex, one can find two identical units that pay extraordinarily different levels of property taxes (sometimes by a factor of 10 to 1), because taxes are based on the price a property owner pays at the time of acquisition.

For California to have stable fiscal conditions going forward, it will need to broaden its income tax base and equalize its property tax base. I am not holding my breath.

About Richard K. Green 102 Articles

Affiliation: University of Southern California

Richard K. Green, Ph.D., is the Director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. He holds the Lusk Chair in Real Estate and is Professor in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development and the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

Prior to joining the USC faculty, Dr. Green spent four years as the Oliver T. Carr, Jr., Chair of Real Estate Finance at The George Washington University School of Business. He was Director of the Center for Washington Area Studies and the Center for Real Estate and Urban Studies at that institution. Dr. Green also taught real estate finance and economics courses for 12 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was Wangard Faculty Scholar and Chair of Real Estate and Urban Land Economics. He also has been principal economist and director of financial strategy and policy analysis at Freddie Mac.

His research addresses housing markets, housing policy, tax policy, transportation, mortgage finance and urban growth. He is a member of two academic journal editorial boards, and a reviewer for several others.

His work is published in a number of journals including the American Economic Review, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics, Journal of Urban Economics, Land Economics, Regional Science and Urban Economics, Real Estate Economics, Housing Policy Debate, Journal of Housing Economics, and Urban Studies.

His book with Stephen Malpezzi, A Primer on U.S. Housing Markets and Housing Policy, is used at universities throughout the country. His work has been cited or he has been quoted in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and the Economist, as well as other outlets.

Dr. Green earned his Ph.D. and M.S. in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He earned his A.B. in economics from Harvard University.

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