Legislation setting up a new system for providing a state-funded property tax break to the low-income elderly and disabled people – if state funding runs short – has been narrowly approved by the House after heated debate.
The bill sponsored by House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, (HB2503) was depicted by critics as a stalking horse for plans to cut the program in the future – a notion Sargent deemed “one of the biggest conspiracy theories I ever heard of” and completely unwarranted.
The state budget for the coming year, as approved by both the House and Senate, provides the funding necessary to cover the next year’s estimated cost of the state-subsidized property tax cuts. The bill establishes a new system for what happens if there is not enough money allocated to cover all those who apply for the relief. Last year, about 140,000 people qualified statewide, though the number is expected to grow.
Under current law, Sargent said, a shortfall in state funding would mean the subsidies would be available on a first-come, first-served basis – provided in full to those who apply while funds are available with nothing provided after the funds run out. The bill says that, in the event that the allocated money does not meet demand, the payments will be proportional.
For example, he said in floor debate, if the average subsidy would be $147 per household – roughly what it is now – and funding allocated in the state budget would not cover that for eveyone who applied, the amount for all applicants would be reduced proportionally – by $5 each in his example. Otherwise, he said the possibility would be raised of one person applying at a county clerk’s office for the tax break seeing his or her payment issued in full while the next in line would be told nothing was available.
Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, said the bill sends “a signal that the intention here is to make cuts in the program” and that, otherwise, it “absolutely makes no sense.”
Other Democrats, joined by some Republicans such as Rep. Bill Sanderson of Kenton, offered similar assessments. Sanderson called the measure “a terrible bill” and a matter of putting “the cart before the horse.” If there is funding for the program in the coming year, he said, there is no need to enact a bill anticipating cutbacks now.
Sargent said the bill was sponsored at the behest of county trustees, who act as administrators of the progam, and was merely aimed at putting in place “the best method for your constituents” should some future cut in state funding occur.
The bill was approved with the bare minimum 50 votes required, with a dozen Republicans among the 38 who voted no. It now goes to the Senate in the last days of the session.