Ward 6 Alderman Ned Drolet has nothing against veterans. In fact, he’s one himself — he retired in 1985 from the Air Force after 23 years’ service.
But Drolet believes a bill the General Assembly sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner a month ago that would provide property tax relief to disabled veterans is unfair.
For Drolet, the measure amounts to “a well-intended bill fraught with unintended consequences.” He noted the state has 28,000 disabled veterans, yet no estimate has been provided of the proposal’s fiscal impact.
In taxing districts where the tax rate has not already been maxed out, the tax burden will shift to other taxpayers because of Senate Bill 107, according to Drolet.
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“I guess I have a problem with that tax liability being transferred to the population at large,” Drolet said. “It’s a give-away program.”
For Chip Shaffer of O’Fallon, Senate Bill 107 just makes sense and is overdue. Shaffer is the father of Charles “Chas” Shaffer, who nearly died in 2006 while serving as a combat engineer with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division. While on patrol outside Mosul, Iraq, a grenade tossed into the vehicle Shaffer was driving exploded, killing his passenger and blowing apart Shaffer's right leg.
Since then, the elder Shaffer has raised money to build a house for his son in O’Fallon and to help out other wounded veterans through Hope For Heroes, the local Wounded Warrior program.
For Chip Shaffer, the property tax break that would be made available for the state’s disabled veterans is the decent thing to do.
“It’s very fair,” he said. The disabled veterans who need Senate Bill 107 “are never going to work in an industry where they can make much more money. My son, he will not be able to work in welding or anything he really wanted to — he’s missing a leg.”
Drolet said in places like O’Fallon Community Consolidated School District 90, Senate Bill 107 “could have an adverse effect on those school districts that are already maxed-out on what they can tax.”
It also bothers Drolet that no one has performed a full analysis of SB 107’s financial impact, particularly on the local taxing districts affected directly by the allotment of so many full and partial property tax exemptions.
“I don’t believe the bill was properly debated,” he said. “I don’t think it’s been fully examined and properly debated, and I don’t know what the full impact to the schools because it hasn’t been fully explored.”
Both General Assembly chambers passed the bill unanimously. It landed on Rauner’s desk on June 29. He may either sign it into law or veto it. If he does nothing, in 60 days it automatically becomes law. As of Friday, Rauner had not signed the bill and was not giving any clues about what he will do.
“The governor will carefully consider any legislation that crosses his desk,” said Catherine Kelly, a Rauner spokeswoman.
The measure would provide graduated levels of tax relief: Veterans with a disability of 30-49 percent, as certified by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, would receive a $2,500 annual exemption. Those with disabilities of between 50-69 percent would qualify for a $5,000 yearly exemption. And veterans with a service-connected disability of at least 70 percent would get a full exemption.
The exemptions would not be provided by the state but rather the counties where the eligible veterans live, in the form of property taxes.
This proposal stands in contrast to the current law, which provides a $5,000 exemption for veterans who are at least 70 percent disabled, an exemption of $2,500 for veterans who are at least 50 percent disabled but less than 70 percent disabled.
Unlike most measures dealing with taxes, SB 107 sailed through the General Assembly with no debate and virtually no public opposition.
The only group to express public opposition to SB 107 was the Illinois Education Association, one of the state’s largest teacher unions.
Charles McBarron, an IEA spokesman, emphasized his group supports wounded veterans. Yet at the same time, McBarron said, public education in Illinois remains under-funded “and has been underfunded for decades by the state. We lack adequate revenue. So in general we oppose things that reduce revenue for schools or ideas that would reduce revenue for the schools if the revenue is not being replaced.”
Jim Tobin, president of Taxpayers United of America, based in Chicago, said his group supported SB 107 and should be expanded to other classes of taxpayers.
“It’s the kind of property tax bill we need to spread around,” Tobin said.
Tobin also agreed the measure puts Rauner, who has pushed for a freeze on property taxes statewide, in a tough bind politically.
“It’s very difficult to vote against a property tax cut bill, especially one for veterans,” Tobin said. “It should be expanded.”
Efforts to provide property tax relief to wounded veterans date back less than a decade ago, when Tom Holbrook served in the General Assembly.
“It just kind of surprised me when I got to the legislature there was no tax relief for disabled veterans,” said Holbrook, a former state representative from Belleville and the current St. Clair County treasurer.
The bill Holbrook helped pass provided for a 100-percent property tax exemption for veterans with a 100-percent disability rating.
“I applaud their efforts on what they’re doing right now,” Holbrook said of Senate Bill 107 supporters.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Orland Hills. Hastings, a veteran of the Iraq War, could not be reached for comment. In the House, the bill had numerous sponsors, including Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton, and Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson, D-East St. Louis.
Holbrook acknowledged that some critics of the bill believe money that is deducted from wounded veterans’ tax bills would be better spent going to schools or local law enforcement.
“But you’re dealing with someone who’s disabled and in the military,” he said. “How could you even consider that your fellow citizens don’t owe that soldier something?”
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2533.