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The General Assembly, by the second section of the ninth article of the constitution, is authorized to provide for levying a tax by valuation, so that every person and corporation shall pay a tax in proportion to the value of his or her property.
The principle of taxation fixed by the constitution is that all taxes shall be uniform throughout the State, so that every person shall be required to contribute his just share to every public burden. It follows from this proposition that it is not within the constitutional power of the General Assembly to relieve any portion of the people of the State from the payment of their share of the money required to carry on the common government, nor to release any property within the territory of any municipal corporation from taxation to pay the corporate debts, or to impose upon any property within the State a greater tax than is imposed upon all other property, alike subject to taxation, more than its equal share of the burden.
It is not denied but that the General Assembly may appropriate the public money for many local objects; and the Supreme Court of the State, in a recent opinion which is entitled to great respect, has given a practical interpretation to this power by hold. ing that the Legislature, under its power to appropriate money, may properly direct the sum raised in a particular district to be applied to local objects. That decision rests upon the principle of an appropriation by the General Assembly.
Under the provisions of this bill, property of a particular description, as that of railroad incorporations, in the counties, townships, cities and towns that have or may issue bonds in aid of their construction, is actually relieved from all taxation for general state purposes; while the property of all such counties, townships, cities and towns as have contracted railroad debts, under the provisions of this act, is taxed at a lower and different rate than the property in counties that owe no railroad debt.
The only attempt that has been made to reconcile these provisions of the bill with the requirements of the constitution assumes that, while it is true that the bill imposes a greater rate of taxation for general state purposes upon counties, townships, cities and towns that have no railroad debts, than upon the counties, townships, cities and towns provided for by the bill, still, such latter counties, townships, cities and towns do pay an equal amount of taxes for the payment of the principal and interest of their railroad debts.
This does not meet the objection; for the principles of taxation established by the constitution require that all the property of the State, and of its local municipal divisions, shall be made to bear a fair share of the burden of taxes imposed by the State, and the proper county or other local division.
As an illustration of the proposition I am aiming to enforce, I may add that no one will argue that it is within the constitutional power of the State to relieve any county, township, city or town from the payment of all taxes, state, county and local, or to require that any one or more of the counties of the State, less than the whole number, should be required to pay all the expenses of the state government, or to pay the local expenses of all or any of the counties of the State.
Applying these views to the bill under consideration, it will be observed that this bill releases all the property of certain railroad companies from State taxation, except the two mill tax and the State tax, and from all county and local taxation except for a single purpose, but imposes a tax upon the property of such railroad companies equal in the aggregate to all the taxes imposed upon other property in the same locality for a single purpose, and that it releases also the excess of the valuation of property in certain counties, townships, cities and towns from all taxation for all general State, county and municipal objects, and imposes a tax equal to the aggregate of all other taxes for a single local object. This presents a case of unequal taxation, which is not cured by imposing a local tax equal to that paid for general purposes by less favored counties.
The principle of equality of taxation is valuable—so important to the safety and protection of the property of the people that it would be a matter of profound regret to be compelled to confess that this bill furnishes an example of its successful evasion.
But their is another point of view in which this bill is especially alarming.
Many of the counties, townships, cities and towns in the State have contracted large debts for corporate purposes, and they are constantly tempted, by the pressure of taxation, to desire to relieve themselves, and at the same time the holders of corporate debts are ingenious in the invention of devices to improve the value of their securities.
The latter class desire to secure the assumption of corporate debts by the whole State, and this bill, with its doubtful, equivocal provisions, is a long step in that direction, and if this bill is to be defended upon the ground that it does not authorize unequal, and for that reason unconstitutional, taxation, but that it is an appropriation of the public money to public objects, more than one hundred counties, townships, cities and towns have already, in fact, appropriated, and as many more are authorized to contract debts, to the payment of which, in the language of the bill, "the funds provided are pledged and appropriated.”
The General Assembly are the constitutional guardians of the public treasury, and cannot, without incurring a fearful responsi. bility, open it to all the counties, townships, cities and towns of the State, to be drawn upon by their separate and independent action, each tempted and stimulated, by the delusive expectations this bill is so well calculated to excite, to contract debts with reckless imprudence, relying upon the expectations that other counties, townships, cities and towns will pay a large share of the common expenses and leave them to devote their means to their own private objects.
JOHN M. PALMER.