Senior exemption proves a poor gift

The Legislature giveth and the Legislature taketh away. And, with the state facing a budget shortfall of more than $1 billion over the next 16 months, the Legislature is definitely in a taking mood.

As a result, a tax exemption that can reduce property taxes for senior citizens and disabled veterans by up to 50 percent is in danger of being temporarily eliminated by state lawmakers.

A few legislators, including Mesa County Reps. Steve King and Laura Bradford, are concerned about that possibility, and with good reason. Forcing senior citizens and veterans to pay more in property taxes just as the economic situation worsens is hardly indicative of government compassion.

But the problem isn’t entirely with current lawmakers. It is with the constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2000 to create the senior property-tax exemption.

That amendment, which appeared on the ballot as Referendum A, was referred to voters by the Legislature. And lawmakers who drafted it added a clever bit of language that most voters weren’t aware of. It says that in any given year, the Legislature has the authority to raise or lower the amount of home values that are eligible for the tax exemption. It can lower the amount to zero — thereby effectively eliminating the exemption.

Lawmakers did just that when recession hit in the early part of this decade, and now they’re likely to do so again. In the nearly 10 years since Referendum A passed, it has actually been available to seniors less than half that time.

This newspaper didn’t support Referendum A for a number of reasons. First, although there is a sliding scale that decreases the percentage of tax exemption available as a home’s value increases, it still gives substantial tax breaks to very wealthy homeowners. Second, because it requires senior citizens to own and live in their homes for 10 years before claiming an exemption, it punishes those who move to new homes, perhaps to downsize for health reasons.

Worse, as is becoming increasingly evident, the senior exemption is an ephemeral gift.

Lawmakers are eager to pat themselves on the back for giving seniors and veterans a tax break when times are good. But they’re quick to snatch that gift away when they face budget difficulties.

We fully expect the senior exemption to disappear this year, and be gone until the economy improves. When that happens, legislators should give voters the opportunity to approve a new version of this exemption — one that eliminates the inequities in the law and makes the tax exemptions something senior citizens and disabled veterans can count on every year.


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