The Politics of Property Taxation: Fiscal Infrastructure and Electoral Incentives in Brazil

Abstract

There is evidence that land titling encourages private investment and can increase tax revenues. Yet, governments across the developing world frequently fail to invest in land registration systems, such as the cadastral map that records land ownership and values. Using Brazilian municipalities as a laboratory, we enumerate and estimate the fiscal benefits and political costs that local elected officials face when deciding whether to invest in this critical fiscal infrastructure. We show that property tax revenue increases by around 15 percent in Brazilian municipalities that update their cadasters. While officials covet this revenue, they simultaneously want to bolster their reelection prospects, and investing in the cadaster could work against the latter goal by angering tax-averse voters or undermining clientelism. If these political costs are substantial, we expect to see greater investment in the cadaster when officials do not face reelection pressures. Using a close-election regression discontinuity (RD), we find exactly that: term-limited incumbents are around 15 percentage points more likely to renovate the cadaster, an increase of almost 40 percent over the mean in control municipalities. Supplementary findings suggest that clientelism rather than a tax revolt is incumbents’ primary political concern.

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