For years, Social Security has been considered the “third rail” of American politics, the metaphor referring to an electric train track: Touch it and you get shocked.
That’s because any attempt to reform the entitlement by raising the qualifying age or cutting benefits has been met with virulent opposition by older Americans who believe they earned the full measure of what they paid into it. And seniors are diligent voters whom politicians aren’t eager to disappoint.
Now we have another third rail emerging in local politics, one that carries that same high-voltage charge: Tax exemptions for seniors.
Last Sunday, The Times reported concerns from local school officials over tax digest disparities due to the rising number of seniors in the area claiming exemptions on their property taxes. The total of fully and partially exempted property adds up to about $12.5 million in uncollected tax revenue for schools.
As long as the millage rate remains constant, a reduction in taxable property can lead to shortfalls in revenue. The only way to make that up is to raise the rate, which would increase the taxes others have to pay. That raises questions on who should bear the burden for paying school taxes.
Many seniors feel they should be excused from paying school taxes as they no longer have children in public schools, and have already done their part by paying those taxes over their working years. And as more older folks fill the growing number of local senior communities, they don’t strain schools by bringing young children along.
Yet others see paying for schools like any other public need. Younger residents who don’t have children still have to pay. And few other public services are funded based on usage. Not everyone who pays taxes for roads drives on them; not everyone who pays for fire services has a house ablaze. The logistics of a “pay as you go” system would lead to toll booths on every road, card swipes at libraries and parks and invoices sent by public safety officials after every service rendered.
No one likes paying taxes, but they are the price of living in a society. Everyone benefits from public schools providing a well-educated populace and workforce. Children now in school will someday fill the jobs of the future, and themselves pay taxes to support public services, including Social Security for their parents and grandparents. Their success is our success, and their future belongs to all of us.
In many cases, today’s schoolchildren are the grandkids of retired baby boomers. Should we all not invest in their education? Even if a local resident’s grandkids live elsewhere, someone else is paying that tab, so it is passed along. As more seniors move in and those already here grow older, shifting more of that burden to younger generations, particularly those just starting their working lives, seems unworkable.
It’s safe to say people of all generations might be more willing to invest in public needs if they trusted how government officials would spend the money. Because of abuses over the years at so many levels and the frequent waste of tax money, seniors are naturally skeptical that the need is sufficient enough to require their continued participation.
With all that in mind, there should be a way to both reward seniors for their years of school tax contributions by giving them a break, yet cap such exemptions to avoid creating a burden on others. Residents currently qualify for a partial exemption at age 62 and full exemption at 70; in some counties, the full exemption begins at 65. Graduating the age requirement is a valid way to ease the burden over time rather than pull the plug all at one.
An even better way to spread the load is through means testing, offering a larger exemption to lower-income older residents less able to foot a bigger tax bill. For those on fixed incomes, the exemption is vital to their livelihoods. Meanwhile, those with greater assets could pay a bit more for a little bit longer.
Now here is where many would toss in that populist phrase so often heard when taxes are involved: “paying their fair share.” That’s a bromide progressives use as an argument for taxing the wealthy to pay for government’s needs, for no other reason than they can. The problem there is deciding what is “fair,” a subjective term under any circumstance. In this case, though, it wouldn’t be asking wealthier folks to pay more than anyone else — just to pay something while those of lesser means are granted more of an exemption.
The county shouldn’t deny seniors a discount for their years of tax support for schools; they’ve earned that. But exempting them altogether as their numbers increase creates an undue burden on schools, and ultimately on younger taxpayers. This is particularly the case as the population grows fastest among the very old and very young.
And such policies should never be created strictly because of voting habits. Those changing demographics should lead to logical decisions based on what’s equitable for everyone and spreads the responsibility evenly.
As with so many public needs, finding the right balance is key. After that, it’s summoning the political will and earning the public’s support to make it happen.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to email@example.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas.