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Barbara's Column
February  2004 #4

Tax overrides get quiet assist from House bill
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Friday, February 27, 2004

The week of my Feb. 17 birthday, the Massachusetts House of Representatives gave me a present. It passed a bill saying that in a few years, I won't have to pay for Proposition 2 overrides anymore.

Isn't that special? Wasn't that sweet? As soon as I hit 65, I can let younger homeowners in Marblehead pay my share of the extra override taxes.

So I won't have to drive my aging Honda Civic to the polls anymore either to vote against those overrides; I can just sit in my rocking chair and let the pro-override folks do all the work. It won't cost the old girl anything to stay home.

The only thing I don't understand is why, if they are giving me this nice gift, they didn't want to shout it from the rooftops! But instead of holding a news conference, then taking a roll call that I could put on the shelf with my birthday cards, they quietly passed the bill during school vacation week, during an informal session, on a voice vote.

Now it's in the Senate. And without wanting to seem ungrateful to the House, let me say to our 40 state senators: Don't do me any favors, please!

When we voters created Proposition 2 via a 1980 referendum vote, we were nice enough to include an override provision so if communities had a special need for extra money, they could ask their voters. Seems that lately a lot of them think they have a special need. Sometimes their voters agree, and sometimes they don't.

Winthrop, for instance, thought it needed another $6 million more than Prop 2 would normally allow. The town's voters disagreed.

The leader of the anti-override forces was a senior citizen. Was there a lesson for proponents here? What if the town could have bought off its seniors by telling them they wouldn't have to pay the extra $1,000 a year in property taxes?

So a bill that has been floating around for a few years suddenly moved during, may I say this again, an informal session during school vacation week, when the Legislature isn't supposed to be voting on anything controversial.

Now, the bill doesn't give an override exclusion to all seniors - just seniors like the one I will probably be someday, making less than $43,000 a year, with a home worth less than half a million  [three-quarters of a million in a second proposal, released after this column was written. See note below for details.],  paying 10 percent of their income in combined property taxes and water and sewer bills. These are the people who are eligible for the "circuit breaker" tax break - an earlier part of the plot to keep seniors from voting against property tax hikes.

For this reason, I opposed it at the time. But I will certainly take advantage of it when I am a low-income senior. I also plan to apply for one of those town jobs through which seniors can work off part of their property tax. Bet all the town departments will be competing for my help.

Then, when I still can't pay my property taxes, I'll get a tax deferral and the town can have its money when I'm gone. My apologies to my son, the heir, but he recently supported a tax hike in Nevada so I'm sure he won't mind.

If this new break for seniors passes, I'll take it too - though I'll still vote against overrides. I'd feel too guilty about the young couples and single parents who just spent their last penny of savings on closing costs for their overpriced starter homes, and still have kids to put through college. I'd feel bad for the unemployed, the underemployed folks in their 50s and early 60s, and others who would have to pay my share of the additional property taxes.

But the bill's proponents are hoping that I'm unique in my need to vote against tax hikes wherever and whenever I find them.

If the Legislature really wants to give me a present, it will get education off the property tax altogether, or at least prevent override money from being used for teacher pay raises while programs are cut. I'd like to see the cap on charter schools lifted, too. Instead, though, legislators are discussing a moratorium on charter schools because the teachers' unions don't like public schools they don't control.

My theory about senior citizens is that many of them are fiscal conservatives because they have been around long enough to know how the game is played. They see through the doomsday scenarios and scare tactics because they have heard it all before. This is why they resist sacrificing part of their fixed incomes so teachers can get another raise on top of their annual step-increases.

And that's why it's important to encourage senior participation in override elections, instead of paying them to stay away from the polls.

NOTE:  Last Thursday, after this column was submitted for publication, the Legislature's Joint Committee on Taxation released another bill, which -- along with additional property tax relief for seniors -- also includes this exemption from future Proposition 2 override increases. For details, click here.

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Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence Journal and other newspapers.

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