VOL. 132 | NO. 60 | Friday, March 24, 2017
Veterans Balk at Proposed Tax Relief Method
By Sam Stockard
Veterans in the state Legislature are balking at inclusion of a veterans tax relief plan in Gov. Bill Haslam’s IMPROVE Act, saying it should be removed to stand on its own.
“The idea that the amendment on the IMPROVE Act for the veterans property tax relief is being done on the backs of veterans is despicable,” said state Rep. Micah Van Huss, a Marine Corps veteran who is spearheading the effort.
Van Huss, a Republican from Jonesborough in East Tennessee, said he believes the House needs to lead the effort to remove veterans’ tax relief from the governor’s transportation funding bill, which contains fuel-tax increases and an array of tax breaks to offset them. Three other bills with similar provisions for veterans are circulating in the House.
The Tennessee Legislative Veterans Caucus unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday, March 22, calling the effort to amend the IMPROVE Act with a veterans tax relief plan an effort “to influence votes” in favor of the governor’s bill.
The resolution says they “strongly condemn the fact that veterans are being used in a political way to garner votes for a completely unrelated issue.”
State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat and Marine Corps veteran, said he doesn’t believe the move is an attempt to “scuttle” the IMPROVE Act.
“I think those veterans are serious about what they’re saying,” Parkinson said. “They don’t want to be used as a pawn to lure more votes, and they’re upset about that, that people that have put their lives on the line, sacrificed lives, lost loved ones, they felt they were used as a pawn in this initiative.”
Mark Lucas, executive director of the conservative group Concerned Veterans of America, condemned the effort to make it part of the governor’s tax bill.
“The politicians pushing for this gas-tax increase know that it’s unpopular, so they’ve resorted to using veterans as pawns to push their big government agenda. Pretending that this massive tax hike is good for the military community is an unconscionable move that disrespects those who fought and sacrificed for this country,” Lucas said, according to the caucus resolution.
Lucas contends increasing the gas tax will hurt families, and while veterans deserve a property tax break, it shouldn’t be done as a “ploy” to raise taxes.
However, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, who put the measure in the IMPROVE Act amendment, called it the best way to move it through the General Assembly this year, based on his conversations with Gov. Bill Haslam and other key leaders.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Norris said, responding to accusations that veterans are being used as “pawns” in the gas-tax debate. “They shouldn’t feel that way.”
Norris’ amendment rewrites the governor’s bill and adds a measure for veterans and elderly/disabled property tax relief by increasing the property value that can be counted toward tax relief for a veteran’s home to $135,100 from $100,000 and the amount for the elderly and disabled to $27,000 from $23,500. Those would be adjusted for inflation annually.
He points out the House version of the amendment pushes the amount of property tax relief to $175,000.
“What we’re trying to do is get veterans tax relief. That’s why it’s in the bill. And it’s ironic that they would find the rendering of the tax relief they seek despicable,” said Norris, who chairs the Veterans Oversight Committee.
The move revives, at least partially, an effort to add about $5 million to the budget last year for veterans’ tax relief.
In 2016, the General Assembly approved $850,000 more for the tax relief program, fully funding it, as advertised, for disabled veterans with property values of $100,000, removing an income cap for new applicants, and setting the property appraisal at $23,500 for seniors and disabled homeowners. Its budget increased to $36.2 million for fiscal 2017 from $35.4 million in 2016.
But lawmakers failed to restore it to its pre-2015 condition when the veterans got tax help on $175,000 of the appraised value of their property, with no income limit, and seniors and disabled homeowners with an income limit of $28,690 netted help for $25,000 of appraised value.
The Norris amendment, which was adopted by the House Transportation Committee this week, would move the veterans’ tax relief closer to that amount.
Lawmakers are split over the IMPROVE Act’s reallocation of taxes and spending, but Norris’ amendment is considered in some camps to be a tax-cutting measure when all things are considered.
It raises $355 million for the state transportation fund and city and county governments to fund road and bridge projects using a 6-cent gas tax increase and 10-cent diesel tax increase, all phased in over three years, along with an 8-cent increase on alternative fuels. Motor vehicle registrations also would be increased $5 to $10 depending on the type of vehicle.
To offset those increases, the bill would cut the sales tax on food to 4 percent from 5 percent, in addition to decreasing franchise and excise taxes on businesses and manufacturers and phasing out the Hall income tax on interest and dividends.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.