and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
April #1

To help the elderly, stop funding schools with property tax
© by Barbara Anderson

The Providence Journal
Friday, April 8, 2005

Since I subscribe to the State House News Service, I read Kerry Healey’s remarks on “The Great Migration” before they were picked up by the mainstream media. She was defending Proposition 2½ and Governor Romney’s decision not to sign legislation excluding senior citizens from future overrides, then added “to extend tax breaks to seniors in order to keep them overhoused and isolated in the suburbs is not necessarily the right answer. It’s an answer, but the best answer would be to bring them into our city and town centers, into more appropriate housing and free up those properties to get back on the tax rolls of the community.”

She, unfortunately, explained further. “Right now, the situation that’s causing an imbalance in our suburban communities is that many of our seniors are aging in their homes, which is a wonderful thing, we want them to age independently in their community, but they’re probably aging in homes that are too expensive or difficult for them to maintain and where the property taxes are larger than their fixed incomes. Plus, they may have three or four bedrooms and only be using one of them. There are families that need that housing.”

I choked on my midnight snack, then emailed a friend in Governor Romney’s office, expressing gratitude for the Prop 2½ support but suggesting that Kerry rephrase her position if she’s asked again. “Hopefully” I wrote, “no one will notice the ‘out with the old, in with the new’ overtone....”

Many news stories, editorials, letters to the editor and senior citizen-lieutenant governor confrontations later, I recognize that this was a vain hope.

Kerry Healey is a good friend of the taxpayer, but I admit I don’t usually identify with her: something to do with my not being rich, thin, or elegantly dressed. But I can certainly relate to having publicly said dumb things, what I call “Winnie the Pooh” moments. To quote A.A. Milne, “When you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it....”

I once used this quote with a Boston daily when I was asked about something unfortunate that Governor Weld had proposed. Later I remembered the first part of the quote, “When one is a Bear of Very Little Brain...” and hoped that the reporter wouldn’t find it. I didn’t want to be on record as calling Governor Weld a Bear of Very Little Brain.

Once, during an intense 1990 ballot campaign, I was asked on a radio show what would happen if we cut several billion dollars in taxes. I cheerfully predicted that “it would be absolute chaos.” In my Winnie moment, I related “chaos” to Greek mythology, in which Chaos is the void which came into being before anything else. Seemed like a good thing to me: repeal the Dukakis tax hikes, initiative serious reform. To the average voter, it seemed like the end of civilization.

The current proposal to exclude senior citizens from future property tax limit overrides would be the end of Prop 2½ as we know it, since without seniors showing up to vote “No,” the rest of us will be paying giant tax increases of our own, plus seniors’ share. Many people who support this concept are long-time enemies of Prop 2½, which is the senior homeowner’s best friend. So who is the bad guy here?

Not Kerry Healey, taken in context. She had a point worth discussing: my own mother, after initial reluctance, sold the house my dad had built for her and moved into senior housing. She had her own private apartment, yet was safe, unconcerned about maintenance and tax hikes, surrounded by friends and activities, one block from downtown and her church in her lifelong community. We would drive by the house and enjoy seeing toys in the yard where I had played as a child.

I wouldn’t mind living in a similar senior environment someday. But my move wouldn’t help a young family find affordable housing: the next owner would tear down my affordable cottage and build another McMansion in Marblehead. Back to the drawing board with that part of the Thingish Thought.

In gratitude to Kerry Healey for starting this necessary conversation, I’ll express my own brain’s favorite solution to senior property taxes. Public education should be funded by existing broad-based taxes, not the property tax; if homeowners had to pay only for other town departments, property taxes could be cut dramatically.

But the difficulty of initiating this in a commonwealth that has extraordinarily high per capita state taxes makes it almost Thingish itself. For now, we can focus on preserving Prop 2½, discouraging overrides, discouraging the parental mindset that other people should pay for “the best” for their kids. We should also help lower-income seniors to use reverse mortgages and property tax deferrals if they want to stay in their homes, while encouraging the creation of nice senior housing like my mother’s for those who do not.

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.