Rhode Island Lawmakers Poised to Give Retirees Financial Tax Relief

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 31, 2015

During the 2014 legislation session, Rep. Robert E. Craven, (District 32) introduced and successfully pushed for passage in the General Assembly. This legislative proposal would ultimately being signed into law by the Governor. Little did the North Kingston law maker realize that door knocking to get reelected in last November’s election would give him an issue to tackle on Smith Hill this year.

At hundreds of homes, he heard the same issue from his older constituents. One such comment was etched sharply in Craven’s memory: “You’re a nice guy, buy I am not going to vote for you because I am leaving the state, the older voter told him. The puzzled lawmaker asked “why?” The response, “We decided the state is so expensive to live in because of taxes we’re going to sell our house and move to Florida. Wanting the specifics, Craven asked, what specific tax bothers you? “We are only of a few states that tax social security benefits, that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said the older voter.

Craven’s legislative proposal, H 5000, was heard Wednesday night before the House Finance Committee. Strongly supported by House leadership, he says, the legislation would ease the tax burdens on Rhode Island retirees by exempting them from paying state income tax all Social Security benefits as well as income received from federal, state and local government retirement plans, disability benefits, military pensions and private pension plans and deferred-compensation plans.

Among its more than 40 co-sponsors are Rep. Stephen M. Casey (D-Dist. 50, Woonsocket), Rep. Michael A. Morin (D-Dist. 49, Woonsocket), Rep. Samuel A. Azzinaro (D-Dist. 37, Westerly) and Rep. Cale P. Keable (D-Dist. 47, Burrillville, Glocester).

If enacted, Rhode Island would join 27 other states – including Massachusetts and Maine – and the District of Columbia that specifically exempt Social Security income from taxation. (Although Rhode Island does not specifically tax Social Security benefits, that income is identified on federal tax returns. Since Rhode Island’s income tax is based on the federal adjusted gross income of federal tax form filers, the end result is that Rhode Island generates a portion of its income tax collections from Social Security benefits.)

According to Craven, his legislative proposal would financially benefit Rhode Island seniors who receive retirement benefits. ”After paying into the Social Security system their entire working lives, or putting a little money away into private pension plans, or working at jobs that provide them with a pension, it doesn’t seem right that retirees are having taxes eat away at benefits they depend on for their very livelihood,” he says.

“Retirees living on a fixed income are probably more severely impacted by taxes and tax increases than other population groups,” observes Craven. “If we are committed to helping retirees have a safe and secure life in their later years, and if we want to help seniors afford to stay in Rhode Island rather than moving to more tax-friendly locations, we need to ease their financial burdens. Exempting retirement income from the state income tax is one step we should take,” he adds.

Tax Exemption in House Budget

Weaving its way through the legislative process Craven ultimately expects his legislative proposal to be modified to not give older tax payers a complete exemption on paying taxes for their social security income. Specifically, the revised language would say, “If your house hold income is under $100,000 or less than your Social Security is tax exempt from state income taxation.”

While a Senate companion measure has been introduced by Senator Walter S. Felag, Jr., representing Bristol, Tiverton and Warren, an amended H 5000 will be placed in the House Budget because of its cost, says Craven.

The price tag could be between $30 and $35 million, Craven says, noting that better than expected revenues enable it to be funded. “It’s a priority to the state’s economic recovery, he says.

Older retirees, making from $35,000 to $100,000, from Social security and their pensions, will just put their dollars in the local economy, adds Craven. “It’s a good investment and we owe it to them. These retirees have been here all their lives, he says, noting that they ask very little for benefits from municipalities. “They have a lot of time on their hands to volunteer [in their communities] and are very philanthropically included in offering money and services to charities.”

Says House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, “Representative Craven’s bill to exempt the state tax on Social Security will be included as part of the budget that the House Finance Committee will be considering within the next few weeks. Governor Raimondo included this exemption for low-wage earners in her original budget proposal, but the House will be broadening it to assist the middle-class retirees as well. The House budget exempts retirees, age 65 and over, who have income thresholds of up to $80,000 for individuals and $100,000 for joint tax filers.”

“We believe that by incorporating Rep. Craven’s bill into the budget, this will begin to stop the exodus of retirees leaving Rhode Island for many other states where there is no state tax on Social Security benefits,” adds Mattiello.

Gov. Gina M. Raimondo sees Social Security is a key source of income for older Rhode Islanders, noting that her submitted March budget proposal eliminates state taxes on Social Security benefits for low and middle income seniors “to help them make ends meet and stimulate our economy.”
With Rhode Island unions hit hard by the state’s recent pension reform, Craven’s proposal has received thumbs up from some.

James Parisi, field representative and lobbyist for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, says his union supports Craven’s legislative proposal. “Unlike some other tax cut proposals introduced this session, his bill includes state and local government pension benefits. About half of the state’s teachers were never eligible to participate in social security so any tax cut proposal that is limited exclusively to social security benefits would be unfair to thousands of retired public school teachers,” he says.

Jim Cenerini, a lobbyist for Council 94, AFSCME also says his union is squarely behind H 5000. “Council 94 believes that legislation deserves careful consideration and support because: many other states provide some type of income tax exemption to retirement benefits/Social Security; in 2014 Kiplinger ranked Rhode Island as one the least tax friendly states for retirees; and since a significant majority of public employees remain in Rhode Island, and contribute to our local economy by spending on goods and services, it’s important to provide an incentive to remain in-state.”

A Final Note…
Other legislation proposals have also been thrown into the legislative hopper this session to protect older taxpayers. H 5446, introduced by Woonsocket law maker Rep. Stephen M. Casey, would protect the pocket books of retired teachers who are receiving a pension from Massachusetts. “These retirees, whose pension are overseen by Massachusetts Teachers Retirement System, are essentially double taxed because of the state’s tax code,” he says.

On Friday, May 29, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) issued a report noting that the state may have significantly more funds available in fiscal 2015 and 2016 than anticipated when Gov. Raimondo submitted her budget in March. Specifically, state revenues are expected to be up by $106.8 million this year and $36.6 million next year, with additional funds available from expenditure reductions.

For this writer, its sound public policy to use some of the anticipated surplus identified in RIPEC’s report to enact H 5000 and H 5446 to lessen the tax burdens of Rhode Island’s retirees. As mentioned earlier, older taxpayers pull less resources from their cities and towns. But, most important, these retirees have greatly contributed to the quality of life in their communities throughout their working years.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Sensible Advice from Seasoned Folk to the Class of 2015  

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 17, 2015 — Updated

This month, notable and professionally successful commencement speakers are again gathering at the nation’s Colleges and Universities to give the robed graduating Class of 2015 seniors’ practical tips and advice as to how to have a rewarding personal and professional life.  High profile speakers cam oftentimes translate into big bucks for speaking fees but these widely recognized speakers can bring prestige to the educational institutions.

CNN.web has announced the this year’s high profile speakers for the upcoming commencement season. According to website, like every year these speakers are politicians, journalists, military leaders, entertainers and business CEOs.  Here’s a sampling: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Oscar winning actors, Anthony Hopkins and Denzel Washington, Novelist and Essayist Author Salmon Rushdie, Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” and Journalist Katie Couric.

May be its time to end the practice of bringing in high-paid commencement speakers.  For this writer, regular folks will do.  Below you might just see many potential commencement speakers, just waiting for the 10 minutes of fame to stand before hundreds of graduating seniors to give their “pearls of wisdom” on living a better life. You may not recognize them on the street, but many in their community know who they are for their achievements of making their Cities and Towns a better place to live.  While not high-profile, through life’s experiences honed every day at work or in their personal worlds, they can give Rhode Island’s college graduates sound, practical advice, to live in a very challenging, and changing world.

Charles Bakst, 71, Providence, retired Providence Journal political columnist. “Stand for something and act upon it.Don’t assume someone else already has done it or will do it.  Work to advance yourself but remember there are plenty of people, even right here in Rhode Island, who have not had the advantages you’ve had. They could use a break too. Help them.”

Dave Barber, 60, East Greenwich, Reporter Capitol Television RI State House. “It’s attitude, not aptitude that will determine your altitude.  There is nothing that will serve you better in the future than a positive mental attitude.  There are two days in life that never exist; yesterday and tomorrow. Yesterday is history, tomorrow a mystery. Live in the moment. Exercise gratitude and kindness in all that you do because there has never been a statue erected of a critic.”

Rick Roth, 61, Cambridge, MA, Owner of Mirror Image.  “Read because if you don’t know anything you are no good to yourself or anybody else and reading is the key to gaining knowledge.  When you are talking (particularly about yourself) you can’t listen. You learn by listening. Try to make the world a better place Pursuit of money is an empty pursuit and will leave you unhappy and dissatisfied.”

Scott A. Davis, 58, Eastside, Owner of the Rhode Island Antique Mall. “In today’s age of information, simply having knowledge is not worth much.  The secret to success in the future will not lie so much in what you know, but in your ability to synthesize information, whether already known or newly acquired, and to draw insightful and valuable conclusions from it.”

Scott Rotondo, 41, Pawtucket, accountant at Tivoli Audio. “Always be willing to expand your intellectual toolbox. Challenge the way things are done, and your own beliefs from time to time. Take in other people’s opposing points of view not with rancor and disdain but with dignity and respect.”

Lisa A. Proctor, 55, East Providence, healer/counselor. “You can not necessarily say all things are possible with God because many do not believe, but I would say a lot of situations we find ourselves in heal when we live honestly, purely, committed and have a merciful and compassionate heart towards others.”

Rudy Cheeks, 65, a musician and columnist of Motif, Providence, “If you can find what you love and make it the center of your life, you’re doing good and will likely be happy.  Whatever you do, “building community” should be an element in your life. Meet your responsibilities (e.g. if you want to create your own family, make sure you are ready for it and committed to it). When you become an “active consumer,” be a smart and thoughtful consumer.”

Kathy Needham, 53, Rumford, Controller, of Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call. “Follow this old adage, “Autograph your work with excellence, it is a signature of who you are”.  Take great pride in all you do but always remember to be humble.  Know that success is a personal goal.”

Gayle L. Gifford, 61, Providence, a strategy consultant to nonprofits, “Be an informed citizen of the world.  Read quality news from home and abroad.  Travel. Look. Hear. Participate to create the community you want your children and grandchildren to live in. Hopefully that community is one of justice, peace and inclusion. Don’t work all day in a job that destroys what you value. Play outside.”

Crystal R. Parifitt, 41, Pawtucket, Owner of  FurBabies, a small pet salon. “Live within your means, below if you can…owning the biggest and best is overrated.  Don’t go after financial gain, choose financial stability because in 20 years you will regret the time you spent ‘chasing’ when you should have been living.”

Nancy Thomas, Cranston, President of Tapestry Communications.  “What you have done has largely been expected of you.  Now, what do you expect of yourself!  Find more than one thing you can do.  Pursue your education.  You’re not done.  Read, discuss, have opinions. Let the negative inspire you, and the positive be your lens. And, as it has always been, there is no work as important as that of raising a child.  Find your path to doing well at both.”

Barbara Peters, Newport, former AARP RI Communications Director, “Life is full of successes and disappointments. When we are young we tend to “cry” when the material things we want don’t immediately come our way. Forget the disappointments and concentrate on your successes. Nobody will hand you what you think you deserve.  [Only] hard work, dedication to your craft and sensitivity to the feelings of others will bring the rewards to you that are truly deserved.”

Cheryl Babiec, Pawtucket, Pawtucket School Teacher. “As an old saying goes….’One Man’s Junk is Another Man’s Treasure’ continues to hold true with the test of time. One of my yard sale “finds” had the following inspirational verse (though the author is unknown):‘Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take our breath away.’”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

 

Palliative Care Can Provide Comfort to Dying Residents

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 10, 2015

           A recently published study, by Brown University researchers, takes a look at end-of-life care in America’s nursing facilities, seeking to answer the question, is knowledge and access to information on palliative associated with a reduced likelihood of aggressive end-of-life treatment?

Brown researchers say when a nursing facility resident is dying, oftentimes aggressive interventions like inserting a feeding tube or sending the patient to the emergency room can futilely worsen, rather than relieve, their distress. While palliative care can pull resources together in a facility to provide comfort at the end of a resident’s life, the knowledge of it varies among nursing directors.  A new large national study found that the more nursing directors knew about palliative care, the lower the likelihood that their patients would experience aggressive end-of-life care.

Susan C. Miller, professor (research) of health services, policy and practice in the Brown University School of Public Health and lead author of the study in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, published March 16, 2015, worked with colleagues to survey nursing directors at more than 1,900 nursing facilities across the nation between July 2009 and June 2010.  The researchers hoped to learn more about their knowledge of palliative care and their facility’s implementation of key palliative care practices.

Knowledge Is Power

According to the findings of the Brown study, the first nationally representative sample of palliative care familiarity at nursing homes, more than one in five of the surveyed directors had little or no basic palliative care knowledge, although 43 percent were fully versed.

“While the Institute of Medicine has called for greater access to skilled palliative care across settings, the fact that one in five U.S. nursing home directors of nursing had very limited palliative care knowledge demonstrates the magnitude of the challenge in many nursing homes,” Miller said. “Improvement is needed as are efforts to facilitate this improvement, including increased Medicare/Medicaid surveyor oversight of nursing home palliative care and quality indicators reflecting provision of high-quality palliative care,” she said, noting that besides quizzing the directors the researchers also analyzed Medicare data on the 58,876 residents who died during the period to identify the type of treatments they experienced when they were dying.

When researchers analyzed palliative care knowledge together with treatment at end of life, they found that the more directors knew about basic palliative care, the lower likelihood that nursing facility residents would experience feeding tube insertion, injections, restraints, suctioning, and emergency room or other hospital trips. Meanwhile, residents in higher-knowledge facilities also had a higher likelihood of having a documented six-month prognosis.

The study shows only an association between palliative care knowledge and less aggressive end-of-life care, the authors say, noting that knowledge leads to improved care, but it could also be that at nursing facilities with better care in general, there is also greater knowledge.  But if there is a causal relationship, then it could benefit thousands of nursing facilities residents every year for their nursing home caregivers to learn more about palliative care, the authors conclude.

Progress in Providing End-of-Life Care

Virginia M. Burke, J.D. President and CEO of the non-profit Rhode Island Health Care Association, said, “We were gratified that the authors found that most of the nursing directors who responded to their survey gave correct answers on all (43% of respondents) or most (36%of respondents) of the “knowledge” questions on palliative care.  We were also gratified to see that the number of hospitalizations during the last thirty days of life has declined significantly over the past ten years, as has the number of individuals who receive tube feedings during their last thirty days.  The need for continued progress is clear.”

Burke, representing three-quarters of Rhode Island’s skilled nursing and rehabilitation centers, adds, “It is not at all surprising that greater understanding of palliative care leads to better application of palliative care.”

The states’s nursing facilities are committed to providing person-centered end of life care, says Burke, noting that according to the National Palliative Care Research Center, Rhode Island’s hospitals are among the top performers for palliative care.  “We suspect that our state’s nursing facilities are as well.  We would be very interested in state specific results in order to see any areas where we can improve.”

Says spokesperson Director Michael Raia, of Rhode Island’s Health & Human Services Agency, “We need to provide the right care in the right place at the right time for all patients.”

When it comes to nursing facilities, Raia calls for reversing the payment incentives so that facilities are rewarded for providing better quality care and having better patient outcomes.  He notes that the Reinventing Medicaid Act of 2015 reinvests nursing home reimbursement rate savings into newly created incentive pools for nursing homes and long-term care providers that reward facilities for providing better quality care, including higher quality palliative care.

Bringing Resources to Families

With caregiving one of AARP’s most important issues, it’s no surprise that the organization provides a great deal of guidance on palliative care, stressing that “it involves organizations and professionals coming together to meet a person’s needs both in terms of pain management, along with emotional and spiritual perspectives,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell.

Connell says that “It’s is truly a team effort in which nursing home staff become key players. The resources are important to patient with chronic and terminal issues. Their families need help, too. So it is important any time we learn more about ways we can address this very important healthcare need.”

Adds Connell, “In Rhode Island, I’m confident that we have nursing homes that are dedicated to easing the difficulty of this particularly stressful stage of life. They give patients and their families enormous comfort. We certainly applaud their compassion and hope the report is helpful anywhere it identifies a need for improvement,” adds Connell.

AARP’s Caregiving Resource Center (http://www.aarp.org/home-family/caregiving/) includes an End of Life section. Check out a specific palliative care resource at  http://assets.aarp.org/external_sites/caregiving/multimedia/EG_PalliativeCare.html

To read the Brown Palliative Care Study go to http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/jpm.2014.0393.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.