Straight to the (Revenue) Source: Contextual and Individual-Level Determinants of Attitudes Toward Local Taxes

Date01 March 2022
Published date01 March 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2022, Vol. 50(2) 157172
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211063212
Straight to the (Revenue) Source: Contextual
and Individual-Level Determinants of
Attitudes Toward Local Taxes
Thomas M. Holbrook
and Amanda J. Heideman
In this article, we investigate the relative roles of local tax policies and respondent attitudes and characteristics in shaping
support for local taxes. Using a unique set of survey data collected across dozens of cities over several years, combined with
contextual data on local tax systems, we can offer a comprehensive picture of who supports, and who opposes local taxes. The
contributions of our approach are three-fold: We use measures of satisfaction with local taxes, using data gathered across
dozens of localities; we incorporate measures of the local tax systems to help account for city-to-city variation in local tax
attitudes; and we incorporate measures of racial attitudes to account for an important non-material element heretofore not
incorporated in studies of local tax attitudes. Integrating these factors into an explanation of local tax policies rounds out and
offers a more realistic understanding of attitudes in this critical policy area.
local politics, public opinion, taxation, cities
Local governments play a central role in our day-to-day lives.
These entitiescities in particularoversee a number of vital
public functions thataffect the quality of life of their residents
such as zoning and land use, public safety, and education. Of
course, this makes the issue of how to pay for these services of
immediate concern to off‌icials and residents alike. Revenue
generationtaxation in particularhas always been a central
issue in local political economy because it is a necessary
condition for everything else local governments do. In fact,
classic theories of urban politics have long argued that cities
are constrained in their policymaking and service abilities
because of their limited ability to generate revenue (Meltsner,
1971;Peterson, 1981;Tiebout, 1956).
Operating within a complex federal system, local gov-
ernments rely on an equally complex web of revenue sources
to provide essential services to residents. As creatures of the
state,most municipal governments receive a signif‌icant
proportion of their revenues from other governmental sour-
ces, particularly from the state government. However, since
the late 1970s, localities have experienced a slow-but-steady
decrease in the f‌low of intergovernmental assistance. From
1977 to 2015, intergovernmental transfers as a share of all
local government revenue dropped from 43 to 36%, while the
decline has been somewhat steeper for an important subset of
local governments, municipal governments, dropping from
40 to 26% (The Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax
Policy Center, 2017).
As a result of this (d)evolving f‌iscal landscape, the ca-
pacity of cities to generate revenue and provide services has
become increasingly reliant on the publics reaction to taxes,
as voters are often asked to approve new or existing tax levies
and/or grant approval for the issuance of new bonds or
bonding authority (Krane et al., 2004). Witness the 2016
election cycle in Ohio, where voters were asked to weigh in
on 291 new tax levies and 134 replacement levies on the
ballots across Ohio municipalities alone (Maciag & Wogan,
2017). However, taxation tends to be an unpopular subject
with the public and many residents have negative opinions
toward paying taxes for an assortment of services provided by
governments (see Campbell, 2009). Complicating things
even further for local governments, their primary own-source
revenue streamthe property taxhistorically is one of the
publics least favorite taxes (Campbell, 2009). However, this
should not be taken to mean that there is widespread dis-
satisfaction with local taxes, or that support and opposition to
Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee,
Milwaukee, WI, USA
Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee,
Milwaukee, WI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Amanda J. Heideman, Criminal Justice and Criminology, University of
Wisconsin Milwaukee, 2400 E. Hartford Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53211, USA.
local tax regimes is rooted only in the local tax portfolio,
rather than some other mix of factors.
Given the publics increasingly active role in deter-
mining local government capacity, it seems critical that
we understand the contours of opinion about local taxes.
This is not to say that those studies that have taken up the
question of public support for local taxes have not pro-
duced a body of informative and helpful research.
However, there are gaps in this area, as many of the
f‌indings are now a bit dated (Beck & Dye, 1982;Beck
et al., 1987;Beck et al., 1990;Glaser & Hildreth, 1999;
Ladd & Wilson, 1983), or are limited in scope, with some
focusing on single (Glaser & Hildreth, 1999;Simonsen &
Robbins, 2003) or just a few (usually n o more than three) citie s
(Beck et al., 1987;Beck et al., 1990;DeHoog et al., 1990;
Reese & Zalewski, 2018). Further, some utilize statewide
rather than local surveys (Beck & Dye, 1982;Ladd & Wilson,
1983;Wallsten & Park, 2015),or are based on aggregate rather
than individual-level data (Roscoe, 2013).
In this article, we build on and contribute to this body of
work using a unique setof survey data collected across dozens
of cities over severalyears. In addition to updating many of the
f‌indings from previous studies in a more generalized research
context, we address two shortcomings of the current body of
research. First, we integrate contextual data on local tax
systems to investigate the relative roles of local tax policies
and respondent attitudes and characteristics in shaping
support for local taxes. Second, we incorporate a measure of
racial resentment to account for the extent to which tax
attitudes are shaped by underlying racial attitudes. While
past work supports the idea that race and racial attitudes
affect attitudes toward taxation, generally, there has been
relatively little work along these lines, and none that focuses
on the role racial resentment plays in shaping evaluations of
local taxes, specif‌ically. Given the centrality of race to local
politics, we contend that this is an important omission made
by past work.
The results of the analysis support the importance of in-
corporating these previously neglected elements, showing
that individual racial resentment and certain characteristics of
the local tax systems shape public support for local taxes.
When it comes to the local tax environment, we f‌ind no
evidence that the overall tax burden has a direct effect on
local tax attitudes. However, residents are responsive to
more specif‌ic characteristics of the local tax system,
particularly those that are most visible: Respondents in
cities that rely heavily on the property tax are more likely
than others to perceive that they pay more than their fair
share in taxes and to favor reducing local taxes, while use
of the local income tax shapes respondent support for
lowering taxes, but not perceptions of fairness. We also
f‌ind that white respondents with high levels of racial
resentment have a signif‌icantly higher probability of
harboring anti-tax attitudes than do white respondents
with low levels of racial resentment, and this effect is
particularly pronounced in the analysis of support for
cutting local taxes.
What Determines (Local) Tax
Policy Preferences?
In addition to the literature specif‌ically addressing local taxes,
research in this area has tended to focus on support and op-
position to the tax-related initiativesin the late 1970 and 1980s
(Courant et al., 1980;Franko et al., 2013;Ladd & Wilson,
1983;Lowery & Sigelman, 1981;Musgrave, 1979;Sigelman
et al., 1983), as well as more generalstudies of the structure of
American tax preferences (Ballard-Rosa et al., 2017;Bartels,
2005;Hansen,1998;Roberts e t al., 1994;Rudolph, 2009). The
f‌indings from this body of research provide a preliminary
foundation for our model of tax attitudes. In broad strokes,
these studies have focused on two primary categories of in-
f‌luence: Material self-interest, and non-material (sometimes
referred to as symbolic) preferences and attitudes. We think
about the former as those elements directly related to an in-
a much broaderset of political attitudes, including those linked
to identity politics and long-term political predispositions.
Perhaps the most obvious and assumed-to-be-true ex-
planations for tax attitudes are those that fall into the material
self-interest category (Hansen, 1980;Lowery & Sigelman,
1981;Beck & Dye, 1982). From this perspective, people form
their preferences for taxes on the basis of personal costs and
benef‌its. While self-interest effects are negligible in many
policy areas (For reviews, see Campbell, 2009), tax policy
appears to be different: Research has shown that the distri-
bution of costs and benef‌its in some cases do shape attitudes
toward taxation. For example, smokers are more likely than
nonsmokers to opposecigarette taxes (Green & Gerken, 1989;
Spivak et al., 2018), and a weakening personal f‌inancial sit-
uation increasesopposition to taxes (Hansen, 1980;Lowery &
Sigelman, 1981). Further, the wealthytend to be more opposed
to progressivetaxation than those withlower incomes, the poor
aremorelikelytoopposeregressivetaxes(Ballard-Rosa et al.,
2017;Beck et al., 1990;Franko et al., 2013), and income
generally is positively related to dissatisfaction with or will-
ingness to cut localtaxes (Beck et al., 1987;Beck et al., 1990;
Roscoe, 2013;Simonsen & Robbins, 2003). Sears and Citrin
(1982),Sears et al. (1980) f‌ind self-interest also is a primary
determinant of vote choicein tax revolt referendathose who
stood to gain the most(homeowners and those with the highest
tax burdens) were the strongest supporters, and public em-
ployees, whose livelihoods depend on tax revenue, opposed
anti-tax measures in California during its tax revolt. While
there is a great deal of support for self-interest explanations in
the tax attitudes literature, some inconsistencies do present
themselves. For instance, Green, Palmquist, and Schickler
(2004) include an indicator for childless adults (kids or no
kids) but f‌ind no statistically signif‌icant difference in tax at-
titude s in their study of t ax limitations in Michigan. Similarly,
158 American Politics Research 50(2)

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