New Uniform Act Good News for Rhode Island Caregivers

Published in Woonsocket Call on November 29, 2015

With the quick stroke of her pen, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo signed guardianship legislation into law during the 2015 legislative session that would help Rhode Islanders avoid costly and time-consuming red tape when exercising health care, financial and other legal responsibilities for their out-of-state, elderly loved ones. It takes effect on January 1, 2016.

Like motherhood and apple pie, the changes made to the State’s guardianship law had broad bipartisan support in the Rhode Island General Assembly. The House bill and a similar Senate companion measure (entitled the “Uniform Adult Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act”) passed overwhelming by votes of 72-2 and 37 to 1, respectively.

Representative Robert E. Craven (D-North Kingstown) who Chairs the House Committee on Municipal Government, says his legislation (introduced with Representative Michael A. Morin (D-Woonsocket) simply helps to protect those who are unable to protect themselves.  “When appointing guardians and instituting protective orders for adults, the law must be clear and concise to ensure someone’s rights are not violated while also keeping them safe,” he says, noting that the new law makes the rules and procedures very clear for this process and it will offer both the protected persons and petitioning guardians the legal causes and safeguards that are needed in such complex situation,” he said.

Fixes Jurisdictional Issues over Guardianship

According to Division of Elderly Affairs Director Charles J. Fogarty, the new law “provides consistency, reciprocity, and procedural efficiency in the best interest of seniors, creating a hospitable and healthy Rhode Island for our elders.”

Fogarty says that the new law would benefit caregivers in many way.  It clarifies state jurisdiction issues and even facilitates the transfer of guardianship from one state or another.  It also would enhance interstate recognition and enforcement of guardianship orders and simplifies communication and cooperation between courts.

Fogarty notes that Rhode Island’s new guardianship law is a law that 37 other states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have already enacted, allowing for cooperation on and simplification of inter-state issues.  “It will be easier for out-of-state caregivers to focus on supporting their loved ones as opposed to becoming mired in current laws.  This legislation ensures that seniors and caregivers don’t waste time and resources in cases involving simultaneous and conflicting jurisdiction,” he says.

“We are very pleased that our staff, our terrific State House advocacy volunteers and a strong network of partners worked hard together to ensure that Rhode Island became the 42nd jurisdiction to enact the Uniform Adult Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Now, Rhode Island joins the national effort that focuses on care, not courts, by removing the barriers that prevent caregivers from providing for their loved ones, regardless of where they live.”

According to the AARP Public Policy Institute’s recent report “Valuing the Invaluable: 2015 Update,” the number of caregivers in our state is 134,000. Their work has an economic value of $1.78 million. That, Connell said, is why AARP Rhode Island strongly supported the legislation and was joined by judges, lawyers and families throughout Rhode Island.

Many Benefits, No Cost to Rhode Island Taxpayers

Connell notes that when the uniform guardianship jurisdiction becomes law, it will carry no cost to taxpayers and makes no changes in the state’s substantive guardianship procedures. However, Rhode Islanders will benefit as it will save them time and money. In addition, they will be safeguarding the health and financial well-being of their loved ones.

“It may seem very technical,” Connell continued. “But the bottom line is easy to understand:  We all recognize that we are a mobile society, and with that we need laws pertaining to caregivers and their families to reflect that reality. AARP strongly supports legislation that removes barriers that prevent guardians in Rhode Island from providing for their loved ones, regardless of where they live. “For Rhode Islanders, the uniform guardianship act is a step in the right direction to help protect the interests of vulnerable incapacitated adults who need guardians,” Connell said. “With this law, our guardianship system will function more efficiently, fairly, and cost-effectively.”

Court-appointed guardians step into the shoes of at-risk adults who can no longer make their own decisions, and make judgments about property, medical care, living arrangements, lifestyle and potentially all personal and financial issues. As a judicial proceeding, guardianship can be expensive, time-consuming and combative. It can remove fundamental individual rights. It can prevent or redress elder abuse – or can create an opportunity for exploitation or abuse of vulnerable adults.

This new uniform act addresses initial jurisdiction regarding a guardianship case; recognition of one state’s guardianship orders by another; and interstate transfers of guardianship cases when such transfers would benefit the incapacitated person.

Another key reason AARP strongly supported enactment stems from concern over elder abuse, neglect and exploitation. It will reduce the enticement of a vulnerable person to another state ― to gain control over assets. The law now will permit a court to consider which jurisdiction can best protect a person subject to abuse, and facilitate communication between courts in different jurisdictions about allegations of abuse.

Partners included the Uniform Law Commission. The Commission provides states with non-partisan, well-conceived, and well drafted legislation that brings clarity and stability to critical areas of state statutory law. In addition, the Act has a broad range of support from organizations including the National College of Probate Judges, National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, National Guardianship Association, Conference of Chief Justices and the Alzheimer’s Association.

With the graying of Rhode Island’s population commonsense laws like the “Uniform Adult Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act” need to be enacted.  Last session, state lawmakers worked together to pass this legislation that makes guardianship system more efficient, less time-consuming and costly for Rhode Island caregivers.  At no cost to Ocean State taxpayers.  Hopefully, best policy practices from across the nation can be brought to the Rhode General Assembly for full consideration.  If it happened once it might just happen again.

 

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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.