Attorney general dodges question on law providing tax break for billboards | Arkansas Blog

Friday, November 13, 2015

Attorney general dodges question on law providing tax break for billboards

Posted By on Fri, Nov 13, 2015 at 6:55 AM

click to enlarge BART HESTER: Does his billboard tax break pass constitutional muster? Attorney general dodges the question.
  • BART HESTER: Does his billboard tax break pass constitutional muster? Attorney general dodges the question.
Is a public interest lawsuit cooking?

I ask because of an interesting question posed by Sen. Joyce Ellliott to Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who dodged providing an answer.

Here's the question:

Is Section 2 of Act 573 of 2015 constitutional?

This established "the methods and procedures for valuation of off-premise advertising signs for taxation purposes."

I wrote about this special interest legislation when it passed. Primary sponsor: Sen. Bart Hester. Its intent was to avoid a tax increase for people with property on which billboards sit, a group that coincidentally includes Hester. The Assessment Coordination Division adopted a national valuation standard that included location in valuation of billboard property. Billboard owners wanted only the cost of the billboard to determine the tax. It is like — as Rep. John Walker noted at the time — saying identical houses in the Country Club neighborhood and central Little Rock should have the same property tax. The result: Much lower taxes for billboard owners.

It was one of the many small outrages that slip through a legislative session.

But ..... Elliott notes that the Arkansas Constitution in Article 16 "requires a vote of not less than three-fourths of the members of each house in the General Assembly in order to establish the methods and procedures for valuation of property for taxation purposes."

Hester's bill fell short of that in both chambers — only 18 votes in the Senate and 67 in the House, needing 27 and 75, respectively.

So, Elliott asked Attorney General Rutledge: Is this section of the law constitutional? Rutledge's answer:

Questions that arise in construing statutes affecting the assessment of taxes are within the purview of the Arkansas Assessment Coordination Department (“ACD”).  The ACD advises and instructs county assessors in the process of exercising its general supervision and control over the valuation, assessment, and equalization of property under the revenue laws. The ACD’s decisions concerning the administration of the state’s tax laws are binding upon the county assessors. While the Attorney General is an advisor to the ACD in this regard, the Attorney General is not otherwise charged with providing opinions on tax assessment questions.

I must therefore respectfully decline to opine on the above questions concerning property valuation under Act 573 of 2015.

From where I sit, Elliott wasn't asking how to assess taxes. She was asking if a statute was constitutional. The Republican attorney general declined to opine. I note for the record that the bill was passed by a Republican colleague who gets even with those who oppose him. (Remember Hester's threat to cut money to the University of Arkansas for its chancellor's support of civil rights for gay people?)

Anyway, Rutledge did note that an unconstitutional section would not necessarily invalidate the rest of the statute.

PS: Another worker in the tax field suggests the statute is unconstitutional because it moves away from the market value mandated as a basis for property taxation (except where exempted such as agricultural land, taxed as to "use.")

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