Current use tax breaks spark debate

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas wants to give farmers a break on their property taxes. But key lawmakers say they want to make sure the tax break doesn’t go to wealthy landowners that don’t need it.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) A key part of the governor’s plan to help farmers is a proposed property tax exemption for some agricultural and forestland. The tax break would apply to land that’s enrolled in the state’s current use program. This is property that’s taxed at its value for farming or forestry, rather than at a higher value for development. In exchange for the lower tax bill, landowners agree not to develop the property. They pay a penalty if they take the land out of the program for development.

But some of the property enrolled in the current use program is owned by wealthy landowners. Former Governor Howard Dean, for example, benefits from the program. He owns several hundred acres of woodland in the Northeast Kingdom. Lamoille Senator Susan Bartlett chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. She likes the idea of helping farmers, but is skeptical of applying the tax break to all who are enrolled in current use.

(Bartlett) “As we were kidding, we said, you know do we want to help Howard Dean with his timberland. I don’t think Howard Dean needs a tax break. I know a lot of people that have property in current use that don’t need a tax break. Do we have particularly a lot of farmers that need all the help we can get to them? Absolutely.”

(Dillon) Windsor County Democratic Senator Peter Welch says he supports the governor’s idea. But he’s also concerned that the benefit not go to wealthy landowners:

(Welch) “I don’t know what his details are, but certainly we’d support that helped something that helped the working farmer, not the hobby farmer.”

(Dillon) But Governor Douglas says the tax break should go to everyone in the current use program.

(Douglas) “Well, some well-to-do people certainly are enjoying a tremendous benefit but they are serving a public purpose, keeping that land open and away from development. So I think it’s worth exempting the property for all those who preserve open space.”

(Dillon) The governor’s tax break proposal was also a top recommendation of the Vermont Council on Agriculture Viability. The panel of farmers and farm experts say the tax exemption could provide immediate relief for farmers who face record low milk prices. According to Douglas, the tax exemption would save farmers about $3 million a year.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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