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By Herb Weiss, contributing writer on aging issues
Almost eight years ago, Rhode Island lawmakers reduced the tax burden on older Rhode Islanders by tweaking the state’s tax on Social Security in the fiscal year 2016 budget. The exemption to Social Security taxation as it currently stands in statute was put in place in 2015, as part of the FY 2016 budget.
According to Greg Pare, Rhode Island’s Senate Director of Communication, the Assembly expanded a budget proposal by then Governor Gina Raimondo to make Social Security benefits exempt from state taxes for many. “The original proposal would have made them exempt for single filers with federal adjusted gross incomes of up to $50,000 and joint filers up to $60,000,” noted Pare, but lawmakers raised the limit to $80,000 for single and $100,000 for joint filers. In that legislation, there was an inflation clause included which resulted in the income amounts now being $96,000 for singles and $120,000 for joint.
During this current legislative session – 2023 – there are two legislative proposals that, if passed, would decrease the state taxes on Social Security income for up to 175,840 retirees.
Helping Social Security retirees
During the current legislative session, Senator Elaine Morgan (R-Dist. 34, Charleston, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich) introduced SB 84 to completely eliminate the state tax on Social Security income in Rhode Island. The bipartisan legislative proposal specifies for tax years beginning on or after January 1, 2024, an individual may subtract from federal adjusted gross income all Social Security income.
Morgan’s SB 84 has attracted the support of GOP Senate colleagues, along with Democratic Senators on the other side of the aisle. The senior-friendly, bipartisan legislative proposal sponsors are: Sens. Anthony Phillip Deluca (R-Dist. 29, Warwick), Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz (R-Dist. 23, Burrillville, Glocester, North Smithfield), Gordon Rogers (R-Dist. 21, Coventry, Foster, Scituate, West Greenwich), Thomas Paolino (R-Dist. 17, Lincoln, North Providence, North Smithfield), Leonidas P. Raptakis (D-Dist. 33, Coventry, West Greenwich), John Burke (D-Dist. 9, West Warwick), Mark McKenny (D-Dist. 30, Warwick), Frank Lombardi (D-Dist. 26, Cranston) and Frank Ciccone, III (D- Dist. 7, Providence, Johnston).
“Eliminating state income tax on Social Security benefits will be akin to giving Rhode Island retirees a raise. We must make Rhode Island a better place for retirees and not taxing Social Security income is a large step in that direction. It will help stem the flow of retirees leaving Rhode Island and taking their spending power with them.” says Morgan who made an argument in support of the legislation at the Senate Finance Committee last week, when it was scheduled for consideration, and held for further study. A fiscal note has been requested, but has not been released.
Time to give older Rhode Islanders tax relief
“Eliminating the tax on Social Security benefits at the state level for seniors who have worked for decades, paying taxes on their hard-earned income, and contributing to Social Security with post-tax dollars, would boost the retirement income for much of Rhode Island’s vulnerable elderly population,” reasoned Morgan. “Social Security is part of the social safety net. It was never meant to fill state coffers; it was meant to carry people throughout their retirement years. It’s time to give our growing older population some tax relief by eliminating the income threshold, beginning with the 2024 tax year,” she said, noting that her legislation will help ensure that even more middle-class retirees and their families can keep more of their hard-earned benefits.
Sen. Walter Felag’s (D-Dist. 10, Bristol, Tiverton, Warren) legislative proposal, SB 246, cosponsored by Sens. Lou DiPalma (D-Dist. 12, Little Compton, Middletown, Newport, Tiverton), Frank Lombardi (D-Dist. 26, Cranston), V. Susan Sosnowski, (D-Dist. 37, South Kingston) and Frank Ciccone, III (D-Dist. 7, Providence, Johnston), was also heard at the Senate Finance Committee, along with Morgan’s Social Security legislation. This legislative proposal would not eliminate the state’s Social Security tax but increase income thresholds to $110,000 for single, and $140,000 for joint, filers. Like Morgan’s legislative proposal, the Committee recommended that Felag’s measure be held for further study. No fiscal note has been released yet on this legislative proposal.
With the cost of goods and necessary services increasing, Felag says that it was crucial to help Social Security beneficiaries by throwing SB 248 into the legislative hopper. “By raising the tax exemption level, we can lessen the financial stress that many retirees on Social Security feel on a daily basis, keeping more of their hard-earned money in their pockets and bank accounts,” he says.
Sen. DiPalma, who serves as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, reported that a couple of proposals have been submitted and heard in the Senate Finance Committee. “Both sponsors and witnesses made the case for why we need to continue to assist our seniors, especially during these inflationary and soon to be “slow-cessionary” periods. These proposals must and will be evaluated in the context of the overall budgetary review process, which is currently ongoing,” he says.
When asked if she ever considered becoming a cosponsor of Felag’s legislative proposal, Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz stated, “I would have loved to, but I was unaware of his bill.”
“It’s not too late to bring Democratic and Republican Senators together to hammer out a compromise legislative proposal,” says de la Cruz, noting she will be discussing this possibility with Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D-Dist.4, North Providence, Providence).
Although I do not see eye to eye with my Democratic colleagues 100% of the time, we find common ground on many other issues,” says de la Cruz. ” I believe there would be bipartisan support for crafting a compromise piece of legislation if it ensured tax relief to retirees on Social Security.
Calls for passage of Social Security proposals
AARP State Director Catherine Taylor, representing over 128,000 members in Rhode Island, called for passage of SB 84 and SB 246. “They would protect the Social Security benefits of older Rhode Islanders,” helping them keep the benefits they have earned over a lifetime of hard work,” she said.
“Assuring that our members are financially secure in retirement is a key component of our advocacy,” stated Taylor, noting that Rhode Island is one of only 11 states that still tax hard-earned Social Security benefits. “State taxes on Social Security benefits in Rhode Island undermines the purpose of Social Security, which was designed to lift seniors out of poverty- not to fund state government,” she says.
“Now, when so many Americans are struggling to afford health care and other basic needs, the promise of Social Security is even more important,” adds Taylor.
“Whether it is raising the income threshold under existing law, or a complete exemption of Social Security benefits from taxation, like 30 other states around the country, AARP supports all efforts to keep hard-earned money in the pockets of older Rhode Islanders,” Taylor told Senate Finance Committee members.
A Call to Action
According to the Healthy Aging 2020 report, Rhode Island’s older population is growing dramatically. Today, more than 240,000 Rhode Island residents are age 60 or older - that’s 23% of the population. By 2040 that figure is expected to rise to almost 265,000. In addition, the state has one of the highest proportions of adults aged 85 and older, of any state in the nation, ranking first in New England.
With the expected graying of the Ocean State’s population, now is the time for Rhode Island lawmakers to reduce the financial stress of Rhode Islanders who struggle to pay their bills and want to remain independent at home in the community.
Although both Social Security legislative proposals have been held for further study, don’t get concerned, says Pare, the Senate’s Communication Director. “It is common to hold bills for further study on a first hearing, and that is almost always the case for bills with a fiscal impact, which would have to be incorporated into the budget bill when it is considered later in the legislative session,” he says.
“There is an obvious bi-partisan appetite to provide tax relief to our growing aging population who have been greatly impacted during this pandemic. This is a significant opportunity for Senate Finance Chair Lou DiPalma to craft a compromise bill that will advance Rhode Island as an “age-friendly” state, says Vincent Marzullo, who served 31 years as a career federal civil rights & social justice administrator at the National Service Agency. Now is the time for both sides of the aisle to come together for a needed public action,” he says.
For details about 9 States With No State Income Tax, go to https://www.aarp.org/money/taxes/info-2020/states-without-an-income-tax.html
For details about 4 States That May Cut Taxes on Social Security Income, go to https://www.aarp.org/retirement/social-security/info-2023/cut-taxes-social-security-benefits.html
RI Speaker of the House Joseph Shekarchi -(401) 222-2447 – firstname.lastname@example.org
RI Senate President Dominick Ruggerio – (401) 222-6655 – email@example.com
Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who has covered aging, health care and medical issues for over 42 years. To purchase his books, Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, and a sequel, compiling weekly articles published in this commentary, go to herbweiss.com.
I (we) have already paid taxes on this money. The State of Rhode Island should be ashamed to tax social security twice. The State needs to stop foolish spending and stop looking at taxes as a ‘relief for mishandled monies’. Rhode Island needs to respect and value the older population.
It’s about time RI did something for retired constituents. Wake up! Many Rhode Islanders who call Fl. there home do not want to spend 6 months there but are forced to because of pensions being taxed in this state. Please stop taxing my pension.