Limited Taxation
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Barbara's Column
June 1, 1999

Seniors Bribed to Support Tax Increases for New Schools?

Let me get this straight. Senate President Thomas Birmingham wants to use my state tax dollars to bribe senior citizens to vote to raise my property taxes for new schools.

He admitted this at the May 25th hearing on his bill "to provide assistance to low and moderate income elderly property taxpayers." Addressing the seniors who were present, he expressed concern about property taxes that are forcing them to leave their communities, then stated sympathetically that "you are not in a position to make a fair, rational assessment of proposals to increase spending."

So he offered them cash. My cash. Your cash. Their own cash, if they still pay income taxes, and someone else's cash if they don't. Birmingham's bill returns money to certain seniors who pay more than 10 percent of their income in property taxes, up to $750.

In order to understand this scheme, there are certain things you must know.

First, property taxes, for seniors and everyone else, are limited by the initiative law Proposition 2, which was passed by Massachusetts voters in 1980. No matter how much market house values increase, the city or town can only increase its total tax levy by 2 percent over the previous year's levy, plus a factor for new construction or improvements.

If a community wants more, it must ask its voters for an override of Proposition 2 on a local ballot. Some overrides do pass. But when school overrides fail, proponents often blame senior citizens.

Certainly the seniors of 1980 were the strongest supporters of Prop 2, and seniors have been its first line of defense ever since. Younger taxpayers, who struggle with mortgages as well as taxes, are dependent upon the senior vote to save them from overrides promoted by people who can afford higher taxes and don't care about people who can't.

Many politicians have never liked Proposition 2. For example, state Senator David Magnani (D-Framingham), has voted often to change Prop 2 and tax our homes more. Sen. Magnani is a co-sponsor of Birmingham's bill and testified at the hearing about his concern for senior citizens.

Do you begin to get the picture? When an opponent of Proposition 2 suddenly expresses concern for any homeowners, it's important to find out what he and his allies really want.

Another thing you must know is that the education establishment has an insatiable appetite for your tax dollars, and its present craving is the money in the School Building Assistance Fund.

For decades, the state has reimbursed communities for part of the cost of building and renovating new schools. Some communities are experiencing major growth in student populations and need to build or expand, so naturally other communities want "their share" of the state money too. Some school administrators facing even minor student population growth want brand-new buildings, even though state money is available for total renovations and additions.

There is also a program for repair and reconstruction that the Legislature has not recently funded, probably because it knows that school committees will neglect maintenance if they think that the state will pick up the cost of repairs.

Many school committees neglect maintenance anyhow; it's easier to talk voters into an override for roof repairs than for salary hikes or other operating costs. Some schools have been allowed to deteriorate to the point where the community can now make a case for a new building instead of repairs.

This brings us back to the Birmingham bill, because a community must get a giant override from its taxpayers to fund its share of a new school bond -- and needs to get senior citizens to vote for it, or at least stay home.

Dear seniors: we who share your support for Proposition 2 share your fear of losing your homes. Some of us even believe that property taxes should support only property-related departments such as public safety and public works, and that operating expenses for public education should come from other sources.

Please don't abandon us, your children and grandchildren who also can't afford higher property taxes. Take the tax break if it passes this summer, but vote against the overrides anyhow. If we don't allow the legislature to divide and conquer, maybe we can all afford to keep our homes.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation.  Her syndicated columns appear in the Salem Evening News, the Lowell Sun, the Tinytown Gazette and MediaNews Group newspapers around the state.

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