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VOL. 41 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 14, 2017

Legislators renew push for veterans’ property tax relief

By Sam Stockard

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Members of the Legislature’s Veterans Caucus are renewing a call to increase property tax relief statewide for veterans and the elderly in a measure separate from the governor’s IMPROVE Act.

The House Finance, Ways and Means Committee voted last week to remove a property tax relief measure from the gas tax/tax cut bill, which is slated to be considered on the House floor Wednesday morning. The decision was followed a Veterans Caucus move endorsing it.

“I am proud of the House for taking a stand against using Tennessee veterans as political pawns,” Rep. Micah Van Huss, an East Tennessee Republican and Veterans Caucus member, said in a statement. “This is an important issue and deserves to be addressed independently of other concerns facing the state.”

Van Huss, a Marine Corps veteran, has been pushing to separate the veterans property tax relief from the IMPROVE Act for weeks since the Senate amended its version of the bill to include it. He also contends increasing the gas tax by six cents over the next three years would hurt Tennessee families and veterans, especially with the state “sitting on a $2 billion surplus.”

At the time the Senate amended the bill, Sen. Jim Tracy said a vote against the IMPROVE Act would be a vote against veterans tax relief. Proponents of the bill say the higher gas tax would be offset by reductions in the grocery tax, Hall income tax and franchise and excise taxes on business.

In unanimous votes last week, the Veterans Caucus approved two motions: One requested House and Senate members consider increasing veterans’ property tax relief to $175,000 on the valuation of their property.

The other states: “Veterans should not be used as political pawns. Legislation providing for increases in the veterans property tax relief program has been sent to the General Subcommittee of the Senate State and Local Government Committee. We, the Veterans Caucus of the Tennessee General Assembly, urge the lieutenant governor and the senators to work to get these bills heard and given a fair vote.”

The Senate’s version of the IMPROVE Act, which was rewritten by Majority Leader Mark Norris, increases veterans’ property tax relief to $135,100 from $100,000 of the property value that can be counted toward relief for a veteran’s home and to $27,000 from $23,500 the amount for the elderly and disabled. Those would be adjusted for inflation annually.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said the Senate opted to place those measures in the gas tax/tax cut bill to ensure they would be funded as part of the governor’s $37 billion budget plan. Otherwise, they would go “behind the budget,” the term used for items forced to wait until the full budget is approved.

“It was not, by any means, some type of ‘human shield’ to get the gas tax passed,” said McNally.

The governor’s bill is the only Senate “vehicle” for veterans tax relief because all other bills relating to it have been sent to the general subcommittee, McNally pointed out.

Nevertheless, some senators are determined to separate the two.

Sen. Rusty Crowe, a Johnson City Republican and Vietnam era veteran, said he supports the Veterans Caucus’ recent votes. Crowe is former chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Veterans Affairs and current member of the Governor’s Council for Armed Forces, Veterans and their Families.

“Our veterans have cared more for our freedom and liberty than they have even for their own lives,” he said in a statement. “We had fought for and received many years ago a valuable property tax break for our veterans, seniors and disabled citizens. It is important that we afford our veterans, elderly and our disabled citizens the maximum tax reduction possible.”

Moving the tax relief to the Senate amounts is expected to cost about $500 million, and adjusting it upward to the House amount would be considerably more expensive.

Norris said previously attaching the measure to the IMPROVE Act is the best way to make sure it moves through the General Assembly, based on his conversations with the governor.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Norris said previously, responding to accusations that veterans are being used as “pawns” in the gas-tax debate. “They shouldn’t feel that way.”

Nevertheless, Mark Lucas, executive director of the conservative group Concerned Veterans for America, issued a statement late last week saying, “We applaud the Tennessee House for recognizing that veterans should not be used as a front to pass a massive gas tax increase. The Senate’s decision to play political games with hard-working Tennessee taxpayers will not pay off, and we encourage them to do the right thing.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.