By Joe DeLong
Executive Director and CEO
Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM)
Following the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh proclaimed that the oil spill wasn’t a big deal because the ocean simply, “eats the oil.”
Thirteen years later, I pointed out to one of the top progressive leaders in the Connecticut General Assembly an issue that would ultimately hurt our property taxpayers. The reply I received was, “the worker’s compensation system is large enough to just absorb the cost.”
Just as Limbaugh’s views were expressed during a unique moment in time, understanding the stage in which today’s views are being expressed is vitally important.
Homeowners in Connecticut are looking down the barrel of potentially the largest property tax increases in history. The same inflationary increases that impact individual households also impact our municipalities — the cost of maintaining a governmental building, replacing a road sign, and filling potholes are all increasing. Most of us are so focused on how to absorb 40% increases in electric bills that we don’t even stop to think about the cost of electricity in our schools or town halls. Because of Connecticut’s over-reliance on property taxes, these increases are all due to be absorbed in future mill rates.
Surely Governor Lamont and Assembly leaders will focus on this issue and offset this potential property tax Armageddon. After all, with billions in surpluses, what better time to focus on positively impacting what is widely considered to be Connecticut’s most crippling and regressive tax. Right?
Instead, the Governor has introduced a middle-class income tax reduction. Guess who pays very little income taxes? Senior citizens. Many of whom pay property taxes while trying to hold onto their home. Little has been written about how much their plights will worsen under an income tax break that provides no relief and adds potentially crippling property tax hikes.
The General Assembly for its part has shown concern for housing affordability by conducting public hearings and press conferences on issues like rent control and overriding local zoning. But let’s be honest, while building more housing units is great for developers, it does nothing to impact affordability if the property tax associated with that housing continues to rise.
So, if the Governor and General Assembly are not focused on property taxes, can we at least conclude that under current conditions they wouldn’t do anything to worsen the situation? Unfortunately, no!
Multiple pieces of legislation are being considered by the General Assembly that would mandate new property tax increases. These range from forcing towns into pension systems that state government abandoned for its own employees long ago and bills that would allow pension double dipping to the perennial issue of providing workers compensation benefits to firefighters who contract cancer.
To be clear there is likely a link between firefighting and certain forms of cancer. Our firefighters unequivocally deserve coverage that provides income replacement if they contract cancer as a result of their working conditions. Furthermore, under the most horrific circumstances where a firefighter loses their battle with a disease caused by their employment, their surviving spouse should receive warranted survivor’s benefits.
That is why back in 2016, CCM, representatives of the Uniform Professional Firefighters Association and legislative proponents sat down and worked out a bill that created the Firefighter Cancer Relief Fund. In the past several months the fund has paid out approximately $450,000 to three firefighters who have contracted cancer. The problem is the General Assembly chose to fund the new program by placing a penny tax on cell phone bills which is legal, but tried to hide the tax under the E911 surcharge – which is not. Policy makers thought it would be better if they hid the tax under a separate fee so no one would know they increased a fee. Unfortunately, the federal government stepped in and said you can’t do that. The easy fix would have been to just spell out the new penny tax on cell bills as its own line item. This was presented to state policy makers last session. However, too many felt that in an election year they didn’t want anyone to be able to say they increased taxes.
Now jumping into this session, during a time of massive state surpluses, some state policy makers are once again reluctant to fund a program they implemented and instead again want to move the program under the workers compensation system where the increased rates incurred will be passed along into the property tax. A new attempt at raising taxes without having to put their fingerprints on it.
What happens next?
It is this approach that forced CCM to call out the burden this would place on an already over burdensome property tax system. And I repeat the mantra I heard the day of the public hearing: “the worker’s compensation system is large enough to just absorb the cost.”
So, when seniors are forced out of their homes, affordable housing never becomes a reality, our small business national rankings continue to decline as Connecticut’s property taxes rise, just remember there is nothing to see here. For Rush, oceans eat oil. For some in the General Assembly, property taxes eat everything else.