Ohio’s homestead tax exemption for seniors has given those age 65 and older modest relief on their property tax bills since the 1970s, enabling them to avoid payment on the first $25,000 of valuation. Gov. Ted Strickland expanded the program in 2007 by dropping income restrictions, giving more seniors a break.
The current state budget reimposes the income restrictions, barring relief for those making $30,000 a year or more. The restrictions, which begin next year for those turning 65, have drawn fire from Ed FitzGerald, so far the only Democratic candidate for governor.
FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive, last week blasted Gov. John Kasich and his Republican allies in the legislature for curbing what he called a “humanitarian” program, arguing its elimination for those making $30,000 or more guarantees a tax increase for those with fixed incomes.
Strickland wanted to say he had cut taxes for seniors, a reliable group of voters. Yet as public policy, returning to some level of means testing makes sense. Perhaps the $30,000 figure merits adjusting, but, at some point, dishing property tax relief to relatively well-off seniors amounts to an unfair subsidy. More, the exemption is not exactly a financial lifeline for those at higher income rungs — the average yearly savings around $441.
Sadly, such a debate never took place. Republican legislators — searching for ways to pay for more income-tax cuts — rammed the change through at the last minute. By contrast, Strickland unveiled the idea in a State of the State address, and his budget bill gained bipartisan support.
FitzGerald is correct that budgets are statements of priorities, and that much of the relief from Republican-backed cuts in the income tax favor the wealthy. That said, the principle of means testing benefits remains sound, those fortunate enough to retire with a steady income paying their fair share. The FitzGerald campaign against the governor is just getting under way. It will begin to sharpen as next year’s general election approaches. By then, FitzGerald must sharpen his issues.