July 19, 2013

Our View: Tax-rent relief program change will hit hard

Property taxes are set to rise in many towns, but low- and middle-income Mainers will get less help.

Housing is one of the basic necessities of life, and most of us pay a significant portion of our income to keep a roof over our heads.

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The new state budget has replaced the circuit breaker program with a tax credit that will offer far less relief to homeowners and renters.

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Unfortunately, a state program intended to help low- and middle-income Mainers stay in their homes is now history. The Maine Residents Property Tax and Rent Refund Program, also known as the "circuit breaker," was repealed this past legislative session.

The new program -- the Property Tax Fairness Credit -- won't go nearly as far to ease the tax burden faced by too many Maine homeowners and renters. It's tougher to qualify for help under the new program than under the circuit breaker, and the amount of relief provided is much lower. Meanwhile, wealthy Mainers will enjoy tax cuts whose much-touted benefits to Maine's ability to attract business remain months and years down the road.

INADEQUATE TAX RELIEF

An estimated 200,000 Maine households were eligible for relief under the circuit breaker guidelines. The state estimates that 125,000 households will qualify to receive the new credit.

The circuit breaker provided a refund of up to $1,600 to homeowners who paid more than 4 percent of their gross adjusted Maine income in property taxes. Renters qualified if more than 20 percent of their income went to rent.

Under the Property Tax Fairness Credit, the maximum credit is only $300 ($400 for people 70 and older), and property tax relief goes only to home-owners who pay more than 10 percent of their income in property taxes. So someone with a gross income of $30,000, for example, wouldn't qualify unless his property taxes totaled over $3,000.

But $30,000 a year is only about 150 percent of poverty level for a family of three. A head of household at that level of income would still be struggling to pay bills, and property taxes would be a burden even if they totaled less than 10 percent of income. The situation is even worse for renters, who don't qualify for a credit unless they pay more than 40 percent of their income in rent.

LOW-, MIDDLE-INCOME MAINERS AFFECTED

Circuit breaker refunds were available to Maine households earning up to $87,000, or $65,000 for single-income households.

The new program sets an income ceiling of $40,000. Many middle-income Mainers will wind up having to forgo relief that could have helped them cope with a still-stagnant economy.

Property tax relief for low- and middle-income homeowners is being slashed as $400 million in tax breaks that benefit the wealthiest Mainers take effect.

Gov. LePage and his allies in Augusta have said that the estate and income tax cuts are key to helping Maine compete for business with other states. Whether or when these cuts will benefit the Maine economy has yet to be determined. What we do know, though, is that Maine cities and towns and their residents will be picking up the tab for the tax cuts: A $75 million reduction in state aid to municipalities will force officials in many communities to either reduce services, hike property taxes or both.

PAYING FOR REVENUE-SHARING CUTS

And since almost 10 cents of every $1 earned by the poorest Maine households goes to paying property taxes, those residents will be shouldering a disproportionate share of the cost of services formerly funded by the state. (The wealthiest 1 percent of Maine households pay only about 2 cents in property taxes for every $1 earned.)

Gov. LePage wanted to gut the circuit breaker program by making it available only to veterans and people over 65, so the Property Tax Fairness Credit represents a victory of sorts. Leading Democratic lawmakers hope to strengthen the program by increasing the amount of the credit; they also should push to restore eligibility to a greater proportion of Mainers.

As things stand now, however, the new credit is a step backward, and it amounts to an increase in taxes on those Mainers least able to afford it.

 

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