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Lawmakers eager to cater to politically active seniors

Entering this year's legislative session, Georgia seniors were in for a modest income tax break, the first of a series of phased-in reductions approved three years ago.

But that was before Senate Republicans and Democrats stepped in during an election year to raise the ante that had been established by GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville, who is running for lieutenant governor, started off the bidding by introducing a constitutional amendment to exempt from taxation the first $50,000 of income earned by Georgians 62 and older. Seniors 65 and older would be completely exempt from paying income taxes.

Next, it was Sen. Tim Golden's turn. The chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus from Valdosta amended Cagle's measure on the Senate floor two weeks ago to raise the $50,000 exemption for younger seniors to $75,000.

In another change prompted by Golden, Georgia taxpayers age 70 and older would get a tax exemption on their first $100,000 of income.

Either way - Cagle's or Golden's - those senior tax breaks essentially would shift millions of dollars of the state's annual tax burden from the oldest taxpayers to younger Georgians, from college students working part time to middle-aged couples struggling to keep up with mortgage payments while sending their kids to college.

But those younger taxpayers have no one to blame but themselves.

Politicians being politicians, Georgia lawmakers simply are appealing to the demographic group most likely to decide whether they are re-elected or turned out of office.

For decades, voting patterns across the country have shown that the elderly and near-elderly are much more likely to vote than younger people.

Take the last gubernatorial election in Georgia.

While only 22 percent of registered voters between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in that 2002 race, the turnout among voters in the 60-64 age group was 71 percent, according to the Georgia secretary of state's office. Those high numbers fell off only slightly among the 65-and-up crowd, to 68 percent.

Older adults tend to be more active participants in the political system because they feel like they have more at stake in the outcomes of elections, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

"Young people move around more,'' he said. "There's also the perception among young people that they're too busy to vote.''

That lack of a sense of place among younger adults also is reflected in which elections they take part in, said Chris Riggall, spokesman for Secretary of State Cathy Cox.

He said younger voters tend to turn out in stronger numbers for presidential elections than for gubernatorial races.

With their larger stage, it's easier to move around and keep up with national politics than the doings of either the state or local governments.

But, as the late U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill once famously observed, "All politics is local.''

Thus, a skewing of the electorate at the state and local levels toward senior voters is likely to produce policies that favor that demographic.

While it might make for good politics, critics of the Senate tax cuts say it doesn't make for good public policy.

According to a report released by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute earlier this month, the poorest 60 percent of Georgia seniors would receive just 2 percent of the tax relief the amendment would generate, while the wealthiest 20 percent would get 79 percent of the tax breaks.

"Clearly, extending tax relief to Georgia's senior citizens, regardless of income, would be politically popular,'' said Alan Essig, the Atlanta-based research group's executive director. "Unfortunately ... tax cuts such as this only shift the burden of the increasing costs of government from one segment of the population to another.''

But Cagle said Georgia needs to lower taxes for senior retirees or lose that economically lucrative market to states like Florida or Tennessee.

"We are losing so many people to neighboring states that don't have an income tax,'' he said. "We can afford to do it.''

As for the argument that the amendment would disproportionately benefit wealthy seniors, Cagle pointed to the change senators made in the original measure that got rid of the unlimited exemption in place of a $100,000 cap.

Presumably, House members also would like a crack at pleasing senior voters. But with just three days remaining in this year's 40-day legislative session, the amendment's fate in the lower chamber is uncertain.

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.