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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Homestead Tax Credit – will it start a war with Connecticut?

"Don't make me have to use this"
Concern that Charlestown's Connecticut property owners will revolt

By Will Collette

One odd question raised about the proposed $1000 Homestead Tax Credit proposed by the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee has to do with out-of-state property owners and whether they will rise up in revolt over this proposal. Former town council president Jim Mageau seems to think they will.

This is from an actual (not made up) e-mail sent by Jim Mageau to Progressive Charlestown:

“The non-resident property owners are already raising hell about not being permitted to vote in the town's Financial Town Meeting/Referendum. What do you suppose they'll do if this idea (the Homestead Tax Credit) ever gets any traction. [SIC] I think that their [SIC] is case law in Connecticut that may give you the answer. Now, lets [SIC] see if the "wing nut"[SIC] will take these comments out of context.”

Owning property no longer conveys special rights
When he says "wing-nut," Mageau means me, even though in today's political lexicon, "wing-nut" means a right-winger, not a progressive. But on the central point he raises, under Rhode Island law, non-resident property owners do not have the right to vote. Massachusetts law says the same thing. Charlestown does not have the authority to change that, even if it wanted to.

In Connecticut, state law allows municipalities with the town meeting form of government to permit non-resident property owners to participate in a financial town meeting. However, under no circumstances are non-residents allowed to cast a ballot. Connecticut law draws a sharp distinction between taking part in a town meeting and actually voting in an election or referendum. To vote, you must be a resident, the same as in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

The “case law in Connecticut” Mageau refers to is Massad v. New London and that case means the opposite of what Mageau thinks it means. Stephen Massad was a non-resident property owner in New London and he was not allowed to vote in a local property tax referendum. The Appellate Court of Connecticut held that under state law, as well as the state constitution and the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, Massad’s rights were not violated when New London denied him the vote.

So even in Connecticut, which allows non-residents some very limited franchise rights, the courts have turned down efforts to expand that limited ability into full voting rights.

During the Dorr War, RI was placed under martial law
Our history in Rhode Island makes the idea of granting voting rights based on property ownership all the more unlikely. In Rhode Island, we fought an actual war – the Dorr War in 1842 – to end the practice of basing the right to vote on property ownership as was prescribed in the King’s Charter upon which Rhode Island was founded. 

For years, the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition campaigned to try to get state legislation passed that would give non-resident property owners the right to vote. This was probably the least popular and most unsuccessful effort ever undertaken by RISC.

Tom DePatie, who helped found and sat on the boards of both RISC and the Charlestown Citizens Alliance, recently floated the idea of reconsidering non-resident voting rights in Charlestown. But that idea quickly died when he was reminded that state law forbids it. 

So why is Jim Mageau worried about what non-residents think about the idea of giving a $1000 Homestead Tax Credit to people who make Charlestown their home? Why does he think that somehow a Connecticut legal precedent would apply to Rhode Island? Where did Mageau get his information that Massad v. New London grants voting rights to non-resident property owners in Connecticut when it actually restricted them?

To get a more authoritative analysis of what Connecticut law says about non-resident voting rights, click here for an analysis done by the CT Office of Legislative Research. 

If it's a fight those Connecticut people want,
An earlier OLR report looks at the question from a slightly different angle, but draws the same conclusions. Read it here

For the Appellant Court’s final decision in the Massad v. New London case, click here.  

However, if push comes to shove and our out-of-state property owners rise up in rebellion over the idea that Charlestown's permanent residents get a $1000 Homestead Tax Credit, let's not forget that WE HAVE A TANK!