A senior point-of-view

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 3, 2003

A near-capacity crowd filled the Greenville Senior Nutrition Center on Tuesday morning as older citizens from across the county turned out to hear the state's top senior speak on Governor Riley's tax and accountability plan.

Long-time senior advocate Irene Collins, appointed by Governor Riley as executive director for the State Department of Senior Services in January 2003, told the audience she felt like their &uot;kindred spirit.&uot;

&uot;I am sixty-one years old, so I am a senior, tooI'm here to bring to you information with a senior perspective about this plan,&uot; Collins said.

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&uot;I'm not here to tell you how to vote because I respect you and your ability to make up your own mind [about the tax proposal]I just want you to know what happened and how we got to this place in our state,&uot; she explained.

How did we get here?

After realizing the depth of the financial crisis the state faced, the governor brought his cabinet members together and asked them to cut back &uot;any way you can&uot; without affecting services, said Collins.

&uot;In my own department alone, we went from twelve state vehicles to two; our staff dropped from thirty-one vehicles to twenty-six, and there will be no new hires,&uot; she emphasized.

The cuts in staff and vehicles, ban on pass-through pork and other cost-cutting measures saved some $240 million statewide.

While the savings were a significant amount, the cuts still not enough to cover the $675 million deficit, Collins said.

&uot;We are all trying to maintain status quo, and that has not been easythere are new programs we would love to implement for our seniors, but the governor has been firm.

He does not want to start anything we cannot finish or continue,&uot; she said.

How bad is it, really?

&uot;First of all, we can choose to do nothing,&uot; stated Collins. &uot;This is what I know for a fact will happen if we don't get additional funding.

We will see approximately sixty senior centers across this state close and 800,000 meals to the elderly will be eliminated—including Meals on Wheels,&uot; she said.

&uot;I know first hand how much those delivered meals mean to the homebound; it's more than just food, it's that human contact, perhaps all the contact they get on that day.

I call it nourishment for the body and soul.

I don't want to see that happen,&uot; Collins stressed.

Fill the hole—or move forward?

&uot;Secondly, we could come up with a way to simply fill the hole' one time—and next year the governor would have to come right back and ask for more money,&uot; Collins said.

Governor Riley opted to present the people of Alabama with a third choice.

&uot;The governor assembled the best and brightest minds from across this state regardless of race, party or economic status.

What they all had in common was one goal—to move Alabama forward,&uot; she explained.

The result of this group's efforts, she says, is Riley's proposed tax and accountability plan.

&uot;The governor had three guiding principles for this plan: giving fairness and equality to the tax system across the board, maintaining low taxes and demanding more accountability as to where the money is going,&uot; Collins said.

The senior director reminded those present Amendment 1 will be an &uot;all or nothing&uot; deal.

&uot;This is a total package deal—you may not like every little section, but you cannot take it apart.

You will have to vote one way and one way only.

I will tell you the poor and the senior citizens in our state will benefit most from this plan,&uot; she emphasized.

How does it affect me?

According to Collins, there has been a

&uot;tremendous&uot; amount of misinformation being broadcast about Riley's plan.

&uot;Your Social Security will not be double taxed; it will remain tax exempt.

Your property taxes are not going up 500 percent.

If you are 65 or over your homestead is currently exempt from property tax and it will remain so under this plan,&uot; she explained.

Farmers with 200 or less acres will also receive an exemption, Collins said. (70% of farms in the state fall into this category.)

In terms of retirement income, Collins assured the seniors up to $40,000 in income would not be taxed by the state under the proposed plan.

&uot;Right now, you would pay $1300 on that same amount,&uot; she said.

Other benefits for seniors under Riley's plan include fully funded Medicaid and prescription drug programs.

Who do you trust?

&uot;Apparently there are a lot of people expressing a lack of trust in our legislature.

My question is, you voted them in.

If you don't trust them, why?

You put them there for a reason—to serve your needs,&uot; Collins said.

&uot;This plan will call for accountability.

For the first time ever, pass-through pork will be a crime.

We will not be able to hide dollars from the taxpayers,&uot; she insisted.

Another hot topic addressed by the director was earmarking of dollars.

&uot;The governor is trying to establish a revenue stream of unearmarked dollars so the money can go where the needs are,&uot; Collins explained.

The governor's oversight committee will be responsible for making decisions concerning the money's use.

&uot;It's going to be handled as an open book—tax payers will see where the dollars are going,&uot; she said.

&uot;There is a misunderstanding the money is all going to education and this isn't the caseas long as [the project] advances this state and moves it forward, it will be considered.

Some projects will certainly benefit you as seniors,&uot; she said.

One possible use for the potential revenue stream, Collins said, would be the creation of

13 large, multi-purpose senior centers offering continuing education classes and other activities to the elderly.

What's the bottom line?

&uot;I am not telling you how to vote—I'm simply presenting what I know to be true.

Who will be holding these legislators accountable?

You all will.

You have power as seniors,&uot; Collins said.

In reference to a question concerning education monies and their effect on seniors, Collins said, &uot; We as seniors have the opportunity to leave a legacy for future generations through the improvements this plan would bring to our educational system.

Our whole state benefits when we have well-educated students.&uot;

She closed by reminding all present to exercise their right to vote.

&uot;Come next Tuesday, go to the polls and vote your conviction —whatever your decision may be,&uot; she said.