Sometimes topics seem to spontaneously form a cluster of interest. At precisely the time I was engaging in an email discussion about the notion of property tax breaks for senior citizens, Valley Breeze publisher Tom Ward took up the topic in his regular column:
The truth is these tax breaks make sense in two big ways:
1. They offer relief to folks after retirement, when they can no longer as easily afford tax hikes.
2. Lower property taxes for seniors, it was thought, helps keep them in their homes and stops them from selling to a family which might put three kids in local schools. There is no doubt that this is a big win for the town. Whatever the town might sacrifice in revenue – usually no more than a few hundred dollars per home each year – is likely more than made up for by not having to build classrooms or hire teachers to educate the kids who would occupy the home after a sale.
Being still on the younger side of the curve of homeowners, naturally I’m inclined to disagree. For one thing, the blanket assertion that seniors as a group have a harder time with tax increases. Maybe that was true when they were younger (that is, they were able to afford increases when they were younger), but both seniors and non-seniors have people with money and people without, as well as people who are effectively on fixed incomes and people who can look forward to annual increases.
Every rationale that I’ve heard for such policies, whether they’re flat discounts on taxes or freezes at some earlier tax rate, is subject to the same sort of counterbalancing assessment. Yes, some older folks in a town have lived there for years and have contributed a great deal to the tax base over the years, but some haven’t. If the senior tax break is relatively new, then those who have lived in a single city or town for their whole lives spent most of that time benefiting from the equal share of tax increases going to the people who were then seniors.
True, seniors don’t use the local schools system. However, they do tend to use emergency services more often, as well as other services, such as a senior center, if there is one.
Most importantly, though, it seems to me that any approach to government that leads us to have a strong bias against children and families is prima facie wrongheaded. Instead, we should take the inclination to make decisions on that basis as an indication that we’re avoiding an underlying problem. In that case, we should be looking to restructure things so that our cities and towns are attracting young families that contribute, rather than drain.
Give Rhode Island’s current predicament, that should start with lower taxes. That way, when seniors decide they no longer need four bedrooms, rather than bribing them to keep their houses, we’d have made it possible for them to downsize locally, thus increasing the total tax intake.
Meanwhile, we should implement a system of school choice that creates flexibility for the overall system to grow and recede as the student population does. Preferably, such a system would be structured to encourage parents who are able to do so to contribute more toward their children’s education and to cover a region, rather than a town, so that the “risk” of increased enrollment is spread over a wider area.
Overall — and this applies across the political spectrum — we need to change how we view government. The idea should be to accomplish a limited number of goals in a way that avoids making assumptions about the specific interests of broad groups of people and interferes with families’ decision-making as little as possible. As it is, we tend to keep piling on policies to fix the unintended (or intended) consequences of past policies to the point that people are forced to make irrational decisions at the tale of some sequence of government decisions that nobody is able to trace.