A couple of years ago, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, evoked a “widow woman’s” tear-eyed pleas for relief from ruinous property taxes.
“The value on her home is skyrocketing because of new construction and growth, and her property taxes are through the roof,” Moyle said. “She can’t afford it. She’s going to be put out of the home she’s lived in her whole life. It’s not fair that we take people who have lived here their whole life and drive them out.”
If that “widow woman” isn’t weeping now, she soon will be — and she has Moyle to blame.
Last year, he sponsored — and rushed to passage in a matter of three days in May — a multi-faceted, 26-page property tax bill that included throwing hundreds of low-income seniors off the Property Tax Reduction program, otherwise known as the circuit breaker. All of this is being done to save a few million bucks for a state that is sitting on a $1.9 billion surplus.
Since 1974, the state of Idaho has paid all or at least some of the property taxes owed by the needy — typically low-income seniors.
Keeping them independent in their own homes was good for all concerned.
It was never that generous. Even today, a household earning more than $31,900 — essentially two Social Security checks for a married couple — can’t receive it. Fifteen years of inflation eroded the maximum benefit of $1,320.
Last year, the cost of helping 26,916 households totaled $18.25 million. For every person who received assistance, another chose not to apply. Maybe they found the yearly process of signing up too complicated. Or perhaps they felt stigmatized by seeking a tax break.
Within north central Idaho, slightly more than 2,300 low-income homeowners collected $1.4 million in benefits.
But the same GOP-led Legislature that has shifted a greater tax burden onto thousands of Idaho homeowners to benefit its corporate backers decided some old geezers were fleecing the circuit breaker system. So beginning with the taxes due on Dec. 20, they’re going to deny help to anybody whose home is worth at least 25% more than the median value in any given county.
That’s supposed to offset the cost of increasing the maximum circuit breaker benefit to $1,500 for those who still get it.
With data available from a dozen counties, the State Tax Commission estimated how that system would work.
Here’s what it found:
Ada County — Anybody with a home valued at more than $498,875 would be denied. Keep in mind, it takes $399,100 just to get into a median-valued home in that overheated real estate market. About 227 people — 5% of those who applied — would be turned away.
Bonneville County — Own a house worth more than $314,858 and you’re out of luck. About 52 homeowners — 4.3% of those who would otherwise be helped — will be denied.
Kootenai County — The owner of any house worth $436,600 or more will be turned down. About 189, or 8% of those eligible for benefits today, would lose out.
Ironically, this change falls harshly on small, rural communities, where real estate values have been more stable. So the Tax Commission estimates 18% of Lewis County’s circuit breaker recipients will get no relief. In Washington County, 16.7% will be disqualified. And in Minidoka County, 15.6% will lose their benefits.
By denying the 1,084 people in these 12 counties the help they’ve come to rely on, the state will save the munificent sum of $1.12 million.
About one of every seven being sent down the road subsist on incomes so bare that they’ve been receiving the maximum benefit.
Nor are they living in opulent palaces that could be converted into a trust fund. More than half of those losing these benefits own homes worth barely more than Moyle’s threshold for disqualification.
Given the way Moyle operates — this handiwork was rushed through in the closing hours of last spring’s legislative session — lawmakers may have been unaware of these provisions.
But what’s Gov. Brad Little’s excuse?
Not only did he take a week to review it, but he recognized the problem.
“I am also supportive of updating the circuit breaker credit to ensure that our veterans, elderly and lower-income populations can afford to stay in their homes, but I fear these changes may have unintended consequences for some individuals and families,” he wrote.
Then Little signed it into law.
Where does this leave Moyle’s tearful widow woman if she’s been dumped from the circuit breaker?
She could turn to the state’s deferral program — which, for the price of a 3% interest rate and a lien — will allow her to remain in her home.
But she will remain in the dark about all of this until the notices go out in the mail sometime in June — weeks after Moyle and his minions in the Legislature have been safely renominated in the May 17 GOP primary election. — M.T.
Marty Trillhaase is the opinion page editor of the Lewiston Tribune.