Many state constitutions assert that all property must be assessed at a uniform rate, yet such a conspicuous violation of this principle occurs nowhere to the extent that it does in the working of the personal property tax. That wholesale evasion occurs is generally known, but the perversity of the situation arises in that the evasion does not apply equally to all classes of taxpayers.
In the agricultural districts personal property to a large extent takes a tangible and visible form - live stock and other similar forms of property upon which assessments are comparatively easy to make. These items cannot be hid as can the stocks, bonds, and mortgages which comprise the bulk of the personal property of the urban resident. Since little intangible personalty ever reaches the assessment roll, the heavier burden falls upon the class with the larger proportion of tangibles, which, it is evident, is the agricultural class.
It follows from the foregoing that an undue burden is placed upon those whose intangible personal property does find its way to the assessment roll, whatever the cause. Estates consisting of various forms of intangibles are frequently placed in the hands of trustees to be used for the benefit of widows and orphans. It is not difficult for the assessor to place these upon his assessment roll. Occasionally people will be so scrupulously honest that the value of all household goods, jewelry, bonds, stocks, and money in the bank will be returned to the assessor. It is upon these classes, then, that practically the entire burden of the taxes upon intangible personal property rests. They are usually the individuals, moreover, who are less able to bear tax burdens.
General Property Tax Regressive. - It will easily be seen from the foregoing features of the general property tax that it is strongly regressive in the manner in which it works out. A small amount of property takes the form of visible personalty or realty, which is comparatively easily assessed. As more property accumulates it begins to take on the intangible nature which escapes taxation. Not only this, but more effort is usually exerted by assessors to obtain a full valuation of a small estate than in the case of a large one. A house and lot worth $5,000, for example, is much more likely to be assessed at that figure than is one worth $50,000 to be assessed at its full value. The tax rate on property, then, actually varies inversely with the amount of the property - a situation which condemns the system from the standpoint of justice.