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Unanimous agreement on property tax break for disabled vets

While it may seem that Democrats and Republicans are at war in Springfield, at least one piece of legislation has received unanimous support from lawmakers of both political parties.

A bill that would provide a variety of property tax breaks for veterans with military-related disabilities passed the Illinois Senate and House without a single dissenting vote. The legislation must still be signed by the governor to become law.

The measure provides tax breaks to veterans who make accessibility improvements to their homes, such as wheelchair ramps and handicapped accessible bathrooms to their residential properties. Under the legislation, such improvements would not increase the assessed valuation of the property for a period of seven years after the improvements are completed.
More significantly, if a veteran has a service-connected disability of 30 percent but less than 50 percent as certified by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, that individual would qualify for an annual property tax exemption of $2,500. Tax exemptions would be given by the county the veteran lives in.

If the veteran has a service-connected disability of 50 percent but less than 70 percent, again determined by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the annual property tax exemption climbs to $5,000.

And if a veteran has a service-connected disability of 70 percent or more, “then the property is exempt from taxation” under the property tax code.

State Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Orland Hills, a West Point graduate who served in Iraq and is one of the sponsors of the legislation, said it is intended to address a number of concerns that have arisen as veterans returning from wars in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan have tried to cope with life back home after suffering serious injuries.

“This bill doesn’t address the issue I’m about to mention, but we had a charitable organization build a home for a disabled veteran in southern Illinois and what no one real thought about is that he now has to pay the property taxes on that home,” Hastings said. “It just doesn’t seem fair.”

Hastings stressed that veterans would qualify for the tax breaks under S.B. 107 whether their disabilities were suffered overseas or while serving in the United States.

“But the standards for getting something like a 70 percent disability from the Department of Veterans Affairs are quite high,” Hastings added. “There are people who are blind who don’t qualify for that 70 percent disability. The standard they use is quite stringent, even to qualify for a 30 percent disability.”

I am a cynic when it comes to property tax breaks. For example, every homeowner qualifies for a homeowners’ exemption. What’s the point? Why not just lower property taxes? And then you have senior citizens exemptions and property tax freezes and long-time occupant exemptions, and low-income exemptions and I’m sure I am missing two or three. The thing is that no matter how many exemptions the government grants, governments continue to levy property taxes and that means that the rest of us are all paying more or, despite the exemptions, people discover their property tax bills keep increasing.

It’s a complicated system hardly anyone fully understands and increases the frustration level people feel when property taxes continue to skyrocket. Gov. Bruce Rauner understands the frustration people are feeling and is playing to their sense of injustice when he talks about a property tax freeze.

Having said all of that, politicians often play to the masses when they talk about honoring the service of veterans, or announce some new monument honoring their military service.

Elected officials also talk a lot about giving veterans a hiring preference when government jobs open up, but I’ve known a lot of veterans over the years who told me they applied for job openings and never even got an interview.

This is a measure that would seem to offer real financial help to veterans who need it.

If a veteran is forced to live in a nursing home or a similar facility operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the homestead exemption would continue in effect “so long as the veteran who qualified for the exemption remains the owner of the property and the spouse continues to live there,” according to the legislation.

The property tax exemption must be reapplied for on annual basis. The law would cover veterans from all branches of the service, including the Illinois National Guard and or U.S. Reserves.

News coverage of the bitter political infighting between Rauner and Democrats who control both houses of the state legislature can make it seem as though the two political parties can’t agree on anything.

In fact, many bills passed out of the legislature this spring with bipartisan support but received little public attention. Of course, few of those measures garnered the unanimous backing of this one.

What politician, after all, wants to be seen as voting against a tax break for disabled veterans, but particularly those veterans who suffered service-related injuries? In addition to Hastings, legislators listed as sponsors on the bill included state Sen. Napoleon Harris III, D-Harvey, and state Rep. Frances Ann Hurley, D-Chicago, whose district extends into Orland Park.

Having acknowledged the wisdom and bipartisan compassion expressed by their support of this bill, I have to ask why legislators fail to understand that all of their constituents are entitled to similar consideration.

I don’t mean we all deserve property tax breaks (although I think every homeowner in Illinois has at least one and many residents of Cook County over the years have unlawfully helped themselves to tax exemptions on multiple properties). I do mean that most of us are fighting an uphill battle to pay our bills, keep our jobs, and support our families. I’ve maintained for several years now that despite the outcry against taxes, what most people actually want is for their money to be used wisely and for the programs they support to be well run.

Yet, time and again, year after year, we read about scandals involving not only government employees who stole money, but those who either abused their positions of public trust or simply didn’t do their jobs (resulting in the deaths of children at the hands of abusers, or elderly adults in nursing homes).

Our new governor has talked a lot about cutting taxes as well as benefits for government employees, but I’ve heard very little about any efforts to make government more efficient and effective.

All of us deserve that, just as disabled veterans ought to get a break on their property tax bills.

It’s a concept Democrats and Republicans ought to be able to support if they weren’t so intent on protecting the jobs of patronage workers and relatives, while handing out millions of dollars on public projects that wouldn’t be anyone’s idea of a top priority if they didn’t live in a senator’s or representative’s district.

I am glad our veterans may benefit from bipartisan cooperation among our elected leaders and figure the governor is going to sign this bill pretty soon. I’m guessing everyone in the state Capitol feels pretty good about their role in this one. They did something good for some deserving people in Illinois.

Doing what’s good and what’s right need not always be difficult.

Will someone ultimately cheat their way onto this government program? Of course. That’s just human nature. That doesn’t mean the idea was bad or passed for the wrong reasons.

I mention that as a reminder to those who take the position that government never does the right thing.


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