Rhode Island Lawmakers Poised to Give Retirees Financial Tax Relief

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 31, 2015

During the 2014 legislation session, Rep. Robert E. Craven, (District 32) introduced and successfully pushed for passage in the General Assembly. This legislative proposal would ultimately being signed into law by the Governor. Little did the North Kingston law maker realize that door knocking to get reelected in last November’s election would give him an issue to tackle on Smith Hill this year.

At hundreds of homes, he heard the same issue from his older constituents. One such comment was etched sharply in Craven’s memory: “You’re a nice guy, buy I am not going to vote for you because I am leaving the state, the older voter told him. The puzzled lawmaker asked “why?” The response, “We decided the state is so expensive to live in because of taxes we’re going to sell our house and move to Florida. Wanting the specifics, Craven asked, what specific tax bothers you? “We are only of a few states that tax social security benefits, that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said the older voter.

Craven’s legislative proposal, H 5000, was heard Wednesday night before the House Finance Committee. Strongly supported by House leadership, he says, the legislation would ease the tax burdens on Rhode Island retirees by exempting them from paying state income tax all Social Security benefits as well as income received from federal, state and local government retirement plans, disability benefits, military pensions and private pension plans and deferred-compensation plans.

Among its more than 40 co-sponsors are Rep. Stephen M. Casey (D-Dist. 50, Woonsocket), Rep. Michael A. Morin (D-Dist. 49, Woonsocket), Rep. Samuel A. Azzinaro (D-Dist. 37, Westerly) and Rep. Cale P. Keable (D-Dist. 47, Burrillville, Glocester).

If enacted, Rhode Island would join 27 other states – including Massachusetts and Maine – and the District of Columbia that specifically exempt Social Security income from taxation. (Although Rhode Island does not specifically tax Social Security benefits, that income is identified on federal tax returns. Since Rhode Island’s income tax is based on the federal adjusted gross income of federal tax form filers, the end result is that Rhode Island generates a portion of its income tax collections from Social Security benefits.)

According to Craven, his legislative proposal would financially benefit Rhode Island seniors who receive retirement benefits. ”After paying into the Social Security system their entire working lives, or putting a little money away into private pension plans, or working at jobs that provide them with a pension, it doesn’t seem right that retirees are having taxes eat away at benefits they depend on for their very livelihood,” he says.

“Retirees living on a fixed income are probably more severely impacted by taxes and tax increases than other population groups,” observes Craven. “If we are committed to helping retirees have a safe and secure life in their later years, and if we want to help seniors afford to stay in Rhode Island rather than moving to more tax-friendly locations, we need to ease their financial burdens. Exempting retirement income from the state income tax is one step we should take,” he adds.

Tax Exemption in House Budget

Weaving its way through the legislative process Craven ultimately expects his legislative proposal to be modified to not give older tax payers a complete exemption on paying taxes for their social security income. Specifically, the revised language would say, “If your house hold income is under $100,000 or less than your Social Security is tax exempt from state income taxation.”

While a Senate companion measure has been introduced by Senator Walter S. Felag, Jr., representing Bristol, Tiverton and Warren, an amended H 5000 will be placed in the House Budget because of its cost, says Craven.

The price tag could be between $30 and $35 million, Craven says, noting that better than expected revenues enable it to be funded. “It’s a priority to the state’s economic recovery, he says.

Older retirees, making from $35,000 to $100,000, from Social security and their pensions, will just put their dollars in the local economy, adds Craven. “It’s a good investment and we owe it to them. These retirees have been here all their lives, he says, noting that they ask very little for benefits from municipalities. “They have a lot of time on their hands to volunteer [in their communities] and are very philanthropically included in offering money and services to charities.”

Says House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, “Representative Craven’s bill to exempt the state tax on Social Security will be included as part of the budget that the House Finance Committee will be considering within the next few weeks. Governor Raimondo included this exemption for low-wage earners in her original budget proposal, but the House will be broadening it to assist the middle-class retirees as well. The House budget exempts retirees, age 65 and over, who have income thresholds of up to $80,000 for individuals and $100,000 for joint tax filers.”

“We believe that by incorporating Rep. Craven’s bill into the budget, this will begin to stop the exodus of retirees leaving Rhode Island for many other states where there is no state tax on Social Security benefits,” adds Mattiello.

Gov. Gina M. Raimondo sees Social Security is a key source of income for older Rhode Islanders, noting that her submitted March budget proposal eliminates state taxes on Social Security benefits for low and middle income seniors “to help them make ends meet and stimulate our economy.”
With Rhode Island unions hit hard by the state’s recent pension reform, Craven’s proposal has received thumbs up from some.

James Parisi, field representative and lobbyist for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, says his union supports Craven’s legislative proposal. “Unlike some other tax cut proposals introduced this session, his bill includes state and local government pension benefits. About half of the state’s teachers were never eligible to participate in social security so any tax cut proposal that is limited exclusively to social security benefits would be unfair to thousands of retired public school teachers,” he says.

Jim Cenerini, a lobbyist for Council 94, AFSCME also says his union is squarely behind H 5000. “Council 94 believes that legislation deserves careful consideration and support because: many other states provide some type of income tax exemption to retirement benefits/Social Security; in 2014 Kiplinger ranked Rhode Island as one the least tax friendly states for retirees; and since a significant majority of public employees remain in Rhode Island, and contribute to our local economy by spending on goods and services, it’s important to provide an incentive to remain in-state.”

A Final Note…
Other legislation proposals have also been thrown into the legislative hopper this session to protect older taxpayers. H 5446, introduced by Woonsocket law maker Rep. Stephen M. Casey, would protect the pocket books of retired teachers who are receiving a pension from Massachusetts. “These retirees, whose pension are overseen by Massachusetts Teachers Retirement System, are essentially double taxed because of the state’s tax code,” he says.

On Friday, May 29, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) issued a report noting that the state may have significantly more funds available in fiscal 2015 and 2016 than anticipated when Gov. Raimondo submitted her budget in March. Specifically, state revenues are expected to be up by $106.8 million this year and $36.6 million next year, with additional funds available from expenditure reductions.

For this writer, its sound public policy to use some of the anticipated surplus identified in RIPEC’s report to enact H 5000 and H 5446 to lessen the tax burdens of Rhode Island’s retirees. As mentioned earlier, older taxpayers pull less resources from their cities and towns. But, most important, these retirees have greatly contributed to the quality of life in their communities throughout their working years.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Advertisements

Fund the Historic Tax Credit Program

Published in Pawtucket Times, June 13, 2014

With November’s election cycle looming, state lawmakers are moving quickly to finish the people’s business. Once the session ends they will begin their political campaigns to garner votes to retain their seats. .Yesterday evening the House began its floor debate on the House Finance Committee’s $8.7 billion 2015 budget proposal. At press time, this columnist has no knowledge of the outcome. But, when the dust settles late Thursday evening, if a budget amendment to fund the HTC program is defeated or even if supporters are successful in getting one passed, the Senate chamber becomes the next battle ground to fund the tax credit program.

Last week, the House Finance Committee declined to recommend funding for this program, despite Governor Chafee’s inclusion of $52 million for the Historic Tax Credit (HTC) program in his FY 2015 Budget proposal. As a result, Grow Smart Executive Director Scott Wolf and his fellow Historic Tax Credit advocates are running a full court press to push House and Senate leadership to include funding for the popular economic-development and neighborhood-revitalization program in the 2015 Budget.

In the lobbying blitz, Wolf is telling lawmakers and everyone who will listen that the HTC program has successfully transform older cities and towns in the Ocean State, by spurring reinvestment, revitalization, and job generation. These programs provide an incentive in the form of a tax credit, to property owners to renovate old historic buildings. These state credits can be and often are paired with the federal historic preservation tax credit to renovate commercial properties.

Historic Tax Credit – Great Economic Development Tool

It’s a success in the Ocean State, too, notes Wolfe. Rhode Island’s HTC program has stimulated more than $1.6 billion of investment in more than 250 projects within less than 7 years. For every dollar the state invests, there is a more than five dollar return in economic activity based on a study Wolf’s organization, Grow Smart Rhode Island, commissioned several years ago.

Wolf adds, “The evidence that the historic tax credit makes a real positive difference can be seen on the ground in communities throughout the state – in bustling commercial properties like Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket and along Westminster Street in Providence, in new apartments for urban workers and new affordable housing units. It can be seen in increased property tax revenues from rehabbed buildings. It can be seen in neighborhoods that have been rescued from the blight of vacant, derelict buildings.”

According to a media release issued jointly by Grow Smart Rhode Island and Preserve Rhode Island, $52 million in bond authorization remains in reserve from the total bond authorization approved in 2008 by the General Assembly for the original HTC program, which was discontinued in 2008 for any new projects but maintained for many other projects already under way at that time.

The General Assembly in 2013 reinstated the program, using $34.5 million in unclaimed tax credits from the prior program and, Wolf says, “The new program has ignited 26 new projects that will pump nearly $180 million into the Rhode Island economy, but 27 additional projects are waitlisted and in jeopardy if additional funding is not provided to sustain the program. By not including an extension of historic tax credit funding in the upcoming budget, the state risks forgoing up to $160 million in construction activity alone. Significant sales and employment taxes also will be lost.”

Preserve Rhode Island Executive Director Valerie Talmage says, “Our Historic Tax Credit program has an outstanding track record. From 2002 to 2008, it generated $1.3 billion in new private investment in Rhode Island’s real-estate economy, which resulted in 22,000 construction jobs, 6,000 permanent jobs, and total wages of more than $800 million. Our state cannot afford to shut this program down.”

Wolf added that suspending the HTC program again would be harmful because “We’d be ceding the competitive advantage provided by our world-renowned collection of distinctive historic buildings and neighborhoods to nearby states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, and New York, each of which has ongoing and robust state historic tax credit programs.”

Finally, Wolf emphasized that another HTC program suspension would “Send a bad signal to investors and entrepreneurs about Rhode Island’s business climate and economic development credibility.”

Wolf and Talmage, together with their organization members, partners, and fellow advocates are calling on the General Assembly to “Continue the Historic Tax Credit program because it is a sound and critical investment in Rhode Island’s cities and towns and a proven job-generator and revenue producer, which our state sorely needs.”

In their lobbying Wolf, Talmage and their network of approximately 90 organizations who support the HTC program are quick to identify its positive impact. State officials will see higher state revenues through construction and other jobs generated by the HTC projects. In addition, job creation and increased employment taxes are derived years in advance of any outlay of state funding because Historic Tax Credits are not released for any enrolled project until the project is completed. Sales-tax revenues result from construction materials and other goods purchased for HTC projects also benefit the state in advance of any outlay.

Wolf and others also note that The Budget Office forecasts no fiscal impact to the state budget from the proposed $52 Million in debt service until FY ’19 because bonds won’t need to be issued until the projects have been completed and the tax credits have been claimed.

In an Op Ed in the Providence Journal, Pawtucket’s Mayor Donald R. Grebien and Central Fall’s Mayor James Diossa, support Wolf’s assessment of its impact in the state’s cities and towns. The Mayors say that their fiscally stressed communities benefit from Historic Tax Credits through increased property assessments.

Developing an Old Mill in Pawtucket

Antique Dealer and entrepreneur Scott Davis knows a good program when he sees one. The Eastside resident is planning to develop his old Fuller manufacturing mill on Exchange Street into a combination of commercial and residential space, but any state backpedaling of funding the HTC program will make it difficult to get his project off the ground.

An inquiry by Davis to Chairman Raymond Gallison of the House Committee on Finance, about the suspending of funding for HTC program resulted in an email explaining the decision. The chairman noted that a primary reason for rejecting Governor Chafee’s proposed additional $52 million HTC funding was based on the assertion that there were already sufficient funds in place in the existing program to meet current demand.

Davis disagrees. “My project, which is a rare and historically significant wooden mill built in a prominent Pawtucket city location alongside the Blackstone River is Number 65 in the queue,” he says, noting that he believes that none of the current funds in place will ever be allocated to his project.

“Financial assistance is essentially the only way that my mill project will ever be able to developed, says Davis, who notes that the cost to restore the historic structure versus the prevailing rental rate for space in Pawtucket simply doesn’t work out.

Chairman Gallison also noted that issues with tax credit brokers are a stumbling block for the program,” says Davis. “It is unimaginable that the resulting (legislative) decision] would be akin to ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater”. If there is a problem with the brokers, Davis calls on lawmakers to fix it, but threatening so many important buildings, jobs, and resulting tax revenues in the process just doesn’t make sense to him.

Davis says that previous HTC funds have made 8 major Pawtucket projects possible. According to the Pawtucket Foundation, the tax incentives were the catalyst for $150 million in local investments that increased property values by 728 % and increased Pawtucket tax revenues by over $1 million annually.

“Keeping these historic buildings intact while awaiting funding assistance is extremely expensive and no doubt we will lose many of them if we can’t save them promptly,” predicts Davis. “ I can tell you from personal experience that just keeping my small 26,000 sq. ft. mill ‘on hold’ costs me several thousand dollars per month just for taxes, insurance, utilities, fire safety, security and basic upkeep,” he says.

HTC is No 38 Studios

Some speculate that recent headlines about 38 Studios and tax credits in general may have spooked House and Senate Leadership to back away from funding the HTC program. Ultimately, the ball is in the court of Senate leadership who must respond to the budget proposal submitted by the House. How can lawmakers fear another 38 Studio debacle when the Historic Tax Credits are only issued upon completion of the project? In other words, after construction workers have laid the last brick – only after new residential and office space is actually available.

But, Gregg Paré, the Rhode Island’s Director of Communication, says don’t expect any action in the Senate to fund the state’s HTC program this year if the House fails to act. “The Senate is in agreement on the budget with the House,” he says, noting that Senate leadership usually iron out any differences before the budget reaches the House floor.

Paré says that the Senate has only once modified the House budget proposal in decades. But, now it’s time for this legislative action to happen again this year especially if the House budget does not include funding for the HTC program.

To Wolf, Talmage, and Davis, and to municipal leaders in a number of Rhode Island’s cities and towns, it is obvious that the program works and serves as an important tool for community revitalization and economic development.

For this columnist, funding the HTC program is just the right thing to do, for the economy and most importantly, for the tax payer.
.
Herb Weiss is a writer covering health care, aging, medical issues and the economy. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.