Our View:To tax or not to tax on college retail space

Besides Arkansas Department of Human Services, a multibillion-dollar operation with over 700 workers, being the largest agency in state government, the second largest tax drain is public education, including Arkansas’ community colleges and universities. Some of the highest paid salaries in the state belong to university presidents and professors. And, we’re talking about six-figure incomes, excellent benefits, job security and top notch working environments. Now, we don’t begrudge anyone in public service from doing well, particularly those public employees who have acquired the professional talent deserving of reasonable and competitive compensation. These institutions of higher learning are known for producing some of the brightest and talented graduates, and play a vital role in making Arkansas competitive on a national level as it applies to economic development. With that clarification made let us say there are instances where these institutions engage in business other than education that has proven to be highly profitable, partly because these successful enterprises have been exempt from taxation. So seems there is one state lawmaker who wants public universities to pay property taxes when they operate as landlords for commercial ventures. State Rep. Micah Neal, a Republican from Springdale, says that when these universities get into the strip mall business and they’re renting to private businesses, they should be competing against the private sector, and they need to be paying property taxes due to the county, school system and the city. Neal specifically brought to our attention restaurants housed in the University of Arkansas’ Arkansas Union and a dental office in UA’s Garland Center are enterprises that should require UA to pay property tax. Russell Hill, assessor for Washington County, traced the dispute with UA back to the construction of Garland Center, described on UA’s website as having “50,000 square fee of retail space” and a parking deck. Shops opened in 2010, according to UA’s website, and the center includes the campus bookstore. Hill, who hopes to convince Gov. Asa Hutchinson to support his bill during the upcoming April special session of the Legislature, says historically taxes have been collected on property that the university had that was not public, that wasn’t used for education and had an eye towards profit. He says there is a very small percentage of the university’s property holdings that have been taxed and cited the example of the county not taxing property related to sales at Razorback athletic events. Naturally, Hill’s endeavors are being strongly opposed by UA advocates and are pointing out a Feb. 4 opinion from the Arkansas Supreme Court, which sided with UA. In a majority opinion, the court emphasized that state-owned property is immune from such taxation. The opinion cited an “absence of language” in the state constitution to allow state-owed property to be taxed and also said lawmakers “have not enacted a law subjecting, property owned by the state to ad valorem taxation.” Neal’s proposal would do just that, specifically for state-supported two-and-four-year colleges and universities. So then gentle readers, what are your opinions on taxing universities on their private, profit-making investments? Let us know by texting the Times.

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