Sharkey’s Property Tax Reform Bill Fraught with Questions; May Not Have the Votes in the Senate

Imagine this hypothetical: Yale buys up some more property in New Haven (it owns half the city already). A reference to Yale in the state Constitution implies that property becomes tax-exempt. Meanwhile, Quinnipiac University buys some property in Hamden. That property remains subject to the town’s property tax. How is that fair? Isn’t there an “Equal Protection” problem? Can it be done? More importantly, should it be done?

These are all questions being asked about state Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey’s pet bill this legislative session—a measure to rewrite the property tax laws so that going forward, when (most) tax-exempt entities expand off-campus, that property must remain on the tax rolls. Obviously, colleges and hospital hate the proposal. Cities and towns win by not losing revenue.

In addition to the uncertainties about the bill, it’s not clear the Senate will even take it up. With the deadline looming, Senators haven’t even caucused (discussed) the bill at all. The story making the rounds at the Capitol is that Senate President Don Williams would get Sharkey’s bill passed in his chamber in exchange for Sharkey getting the votes for a Williams-backed bill on universal preschool and the Office of Early Childhood. The House has passed Williams’ bill in two parts. Sharkey’s sits on the Senate calendar.

Insiders say there is no deal and in fact, there are not enough votes in the Senate to pass Sharkey’s bill in its present form. If Sharkey’s bill dies on the Senate calendar when the constitutionally mandated close of session arrives Wednesday at midnight, the relationship between the House and Senate will be further strained.

Williams, whose determination to get the early childhood bills passed is truly admirable, may not feel obligated to do Sharkey’s bill. Last month the House totally dissed Williams and the Senate when it took up a Senate bill backed by Williams only to defeat it. (The bill would have banned GMO grass seed.) Not only did the House defeat it, it suspended its rules to do so. The move was nearly unprecedented and a clear slap in the face to Williams. Add in the fact that Williams is leaving the Senate after this session and it doesn’t look good for Sharkey’s bill.

Williams is a straight shooter who, while adept at negotiating the legislative process, is a politician who actually cares about the legislation that is passed particularly when it has real-world impact on people. His going to the mat for the early childhood legislation is a case in point.

“The Republicans are the opposition. The House is the enemy.” The Shad heard this adage spoken jokingly during my years on staff in the Senate. The truth is there is always tension between two chambers. It’s routine that off-the-record negotiations take place between leaders to arrive at a compromise. It just seems that there is a bit more tension this year than others.