Three buses carrying about 200 senior citizens converged on Annapolis last week, and the passengers urged state officials to support what one senior citizen called "nothing fancy -- just comfort and peace of mind for old people."
The passengers, members of a Chillum-based organization called Bus -- bEtterment for United Seniors -- are seeking legislative support for a property-tax relief program that would enable more senior citizens to qualify for rent rebates and provide higher rebates for those already receiving them.
While they agree that the mood in Annapolis this session is cool to new expenditures, the program's supporters and sponsors emphasize that it calls for the same $3 million allocation a more limited program received last year.
Many legislators seem eager to support an increase in the size and number of rent rebates for senior citizens. But the competition for funds will be especially fierce this year in the face of low revenue estimates and a tighter state budget. The proposal has powerful supporters -- including Gov. Harry Hughes, who called for a broader rebate program in his state of the state address last week, and Del. Gerard Devlin (D-Prince George's), vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee -- but it may not clear the legislature without a fight.
"The cry will be, 'Look if you give in and expand one program, you can't say no to all the others,'" predicted Sen. John Garrity (D-Prince George's), who will sponsor one of several bills this session that will try to expand the tax relief program.
One such measure -- House Bill 229 -- already has been introduced in the House. Among its three sponsors is Idamae Garrott (D-Montgomery), who cosponsored the 1979 bill that created the current rent rebate program.
The bill "really is badly needed," she said, because while the rebate program reached "the worst-off tenants, really the bottom, it did not include those just above that bottom."
The rebate program is based on the assumption that a part of every tenant's rent goes toward the landlord's property-tax bill. Currently that portion is arbitrarily set at 10 percent of the adjusted annual rent -- that is, the amount of rent left once an equally arbitrary allowance of 18 percent is deducted for utilities. If utilities are not included in the rent, the property tax portion is simply 10 percent of the annual rent.
This number is compared to the result of a second formula, which gives the amount property taxes should not exceed, according to income. If a senior citizen has paid more tax than he or she should, according to this formula, the excess is refunded in the form of a tax rebate.
The new measure would increase the percentage of rent considered to be property tax from 10 to 18 percent if utilities are included in the rent, and from 10 percent to 15 percent of the sum of the rent plus utilities if utilities are not included. Thus, the bill would make more senior citizens eligible for a rebate, and give bigger rebates to those already receiving them.
Only about $500,000 -- one-sixth of the $3 million appropriated -- was spent last year because few persons could qualify under the formula used to determine eligibility, according to Robert Young, administrator of the Tax Credit Section of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, which runs the rebate program. Young said legislators had estimated 20,000 persons would apply for the aid, but only about 6,022 did. The average rebate was $86; some renters received rebates as high as $200 and $250 but most people got about $35.
The House bill, according to Young, would cost approximately $2.2 million, allowing both for the increased size of the rebates and for newly eligible elderly renters. Even if his department's estimate of the number of new applicants is too small, the cost of the program probably would still not exceed $3 million, he said.
"It's a small percentage of the state budget, but it's very important to the people who get it," said Del. Tim Maloney (D-Prince George's), a cosponsor of Garrott's bill.
Garrity said he agrees that the rebate law needs revision, but that the Garrott bill "doesn't go far enough." He said he plans to work with Del. Richard Palumbo (D-Prince George's) of the House Ways and Means Committee and Gene Burner, director of the Department of Assessment and Taxation, to introduce another bill that he thinks would increase the amounts of the rebate more than Garrott's bill. Many persons did not believe it was worth applying just to receive a rebate of $30 or $40, he said.
Garrott's bill "may not hit the lower seniors, the ones on fixed incomes, as well as it should," he said. Garrity said in his own bill he will try to make the typical rebate $90 to $100, "to make it meaningful tax relief." t
The governor's proposal -- which could be introduced into the legislature by one of its members -- calls for increasing the percentage of rent considered property tax from 10 percent to 15 percent. Young, the assessment and taxation department administrator, said the governor's proposal would mean an additional 6,000 senior citizens would qualify for the program next year.
The seniors say they don't care how the rebate program is changed, they just want it done.
"Too many people couldn't qualify under the terms of the old bill," said Milton Lieberman, a spokesman for BUS who has been meeting with state officials to ask their support. "We want more money to filter down to the seniors who need it, and we want more people to get it."
His thoughts were echoed by a 79-year-old Bladensburg woman who is eligible for a rebate now and very glad of it.
Living on a monthly Social Security check of $440 gives her "nightmares sometimes," said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. Her rent is $240 per month.
Money is "carefully figured and carefully spent. It's a very precarious way of living. It's all right as long as you're well, but if you get sick, then what?" she asked. Several times during the interview in her home last week, she mentioned that she had just spent $40 on medication for high blood pressure, a small fortune to her.
"As long as we are independent, we don't want riches or a lot," said the woman. "We just want to feel secure, that we can pay our rent. That's very important."
"Nothing could be more worthwhile" than the tax relief program, the woman said. "I look at it this way: that's my rent increase. We get one every year here."
Another woman who lives on Social Security alone said she uses her rebate to pay her dental bills. "We're not asking for charity, my God," she exclaimed. "We've practically built these buildings with our rent."