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Senior tax refund up for a vote in West Virginia

February 25, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Legislation that could refund property tax increases to West Virginia seniors who have low or fixed incomes is expected to be voted on today in the state Senate, which bucked leadership on Friday and amended Gov. Joe Manchin's version of the bill.

In a bipartisan 19-11 vote Friday, senators amended Senate Bill 239 with a proposal introduced by state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, that would refund any increase in property taxes for residents ages 65 and older who make $25,000 or less per year.

As originally introduced on behalf of the governor, the Senior Citizen Property Tax Payment Deferment Act only would have deferred property tax increases for low-income seniors by placing a lien on the owner's property until it was transferred or sold.

"A lot of seniors (opposed to the lien proposal) told me it was a pride thing," Unger said of the ever-increasing debt that would be attached to the property and what he said ultimately amounted to a "death tax" for a property owner's family.

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Co-sponsored by John Yoder, R-Jefferson/Berkeley, and two other senators, the bill is up for passage in the Senate today, but still would have to clear the House of Delegates.

Unger and Yoder, R-Jefferson, on Friday credited each other for making strong arguments in support of the amendment on Thursday.

"He did a great job arguing on the floor," Unger said of Yoder's support for amending the bill that Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin and Minority Leader Don Caruth introduced on behalf of Manchin. Yoder introduced similar tax-deferment legislation last year.

On Friday, Yoder said he was with Democratic senators after the vote who received phone calls from Manchin or the governor's staff urging them to have the bill recalled. They were told that Unger's amendment would cost the state $10 million, Yoder said.

"I have heard from a number of Democrats that the governor has tried to get them to change their vote," Yoder said.

Even with the supposed cost, Yoder said opponents of the amendment should consider the financial impact on the state if older Jefferson and Berkeley County residents, angered by the lack of long-anticipated tax relief, bring about the defeat of countywide excess levies that help fund the region's growing school districts. The defeat of the levies would shift millions in funding responsibility to the state.

Unger said he had not been contacted by the governor or his staff and wasn't aware of any pressure on other Democratic members, but said the House of Delegates could make changes to the bill if it needed to be tweaked.

"If (the governor and his staff) want to change it, then I think they ought to come out and tell the seniors why," said Unger, who cited a number of recent Senate votes this session that would give tax relief to business CEOs, including a bill for airplane owners backed by Manchin.

"What's wrong with helping these people? They spent their whole life working hard, they got a home - they want to keep it," Unger said.

Before the "floor fight" Friday in the Senate chamber, Unger said a version of his amendment was defeated in the Finance Committee by two votes. Afterward, Unger said he worked with fellow committee member Donna J. Boley, R-Pleasants, to "fine tune' the legislation and welcomed the support of Yoder and Sen. John Pat Fanning, D-McDowell, who signed on as co-sponsors.

"This is the right thing to do," Unger said. "This not a John Unger thing or a John Yoder thing."

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