During the 2006 Vermont legislative session, a significant change was made to the property tax adjustment system.
In an effort to simplify the prebate/rebate system of the statewide property tax, the Legislature, in Act 185, decided to send the individual property taxpayers' adjustments to their town or city to be adjusted on their tax bills.
So beginning this year, Vermonters who qualify for a prebate/rebate will no longer receive a tax adjustment check from the Vermont Department of Taxes. Rather, the municipalities are receiving that money and are applying that money directly to Vermonters' property tax bills. Not surprisingly, this modification has caused a great deal of consternation among Vermont taxpayers.
In 2006, most Republicans and all the Democrats present for the vote supported this change. However, a significant privacy concern was raised even at that time specifically that the new system would allow for sensitive data regarding household property tax prebates and rebates to be in the public domain. Those who voted for the bill believed the committee when it reported that household incomes would be masked by various reporting options. The hope was that as the new system was developed for implementation, those concerns would be addressed. It became clear, however, before the 2007 legislative session began, that the privacy of Vermonters' financial information was going to be jeopardized.
In essence, under this new tax adjustment system, property tax bills will be adjusted at the municipal level to include the state payment. As a result, details of prebates and rebates are now available in any town office as a public record, and any individual or organization can request the information under Vermont's public records law. The public data reveal just how much an individual is receiving in state assistance, and this information can be used to calculate, with a high degree of probability, the household income of a property taxpayer.
Simply put, the privacy of Vermonters' financial information has been breached. This is cause for real worry now, and it should have been cause for real worry by our legislative leaders during the 2007 legislative session.
I, and many of my Republican and Progressive colleagues in the House, raised these significant concerns numerous times last session. Unfortunately, each time we raised the issues, legislative leaders chose to ignore them. Contrary to some newspaper reports, legislative leaders were very much aware of the breach in privacy that this new system would entail and yet were unwilling to do anything to prevent it.
Legislative leaders had numerous opportunities to protect the financial privacy of Vermonters. Earlier this year Republican Rep. Rick Hube and Progressive Rep. Chris Pearson introduced a bill that would have allowed Vermonters to "opt out" of the new payment scheme. After this bill was buried by House leadership, I offered an amendment on the floor of the House to return to the previous prebate/rebate system, at the very least until we could be assured of protecting the privacy of Vermonters. House leadership scuttled this attempt as well. To see how your representative voted on this amendment you can go to: www.leg.state.vt.us
Speaker Gaye Symington now says she will bring the concerns to her committee leaders so that they can be addressed next year. In my view, this is a day late and a dollar short. The information is already out there. The privacy of Vermonters is no longer sacred. The damage has already been done. Madam Speaker, next year is too late.
David Sunderland, a Republican,
State Representative from Rutland Town.