The governor's hallmark legislation this year — increasing the gas tax — included a late addition: a provision that cuts property taxes for veterans who are fully disabled. The change comes as veterans are mobilizing more in Tennessee politics.
For decades, veterans who had a "total and permanent" disability paid less in property taxes. At the program's peak a few years ago, they could exempt $175,000 from their home value. The state would pay the difference to the local municipalities that collect property tax.
In 2013, Tennessee paid $11.4 million for nearly 17,000 claims from disabled veterans and their spouses, according to the state comptroller's office.
But facing a growing number of applicants, lawmakers decided to reign in the program in 2015 by adding an income requirement — they now had to make less than $60,000 a year to qualify — and lowering the property tax exemption to $100,000.
Veterans were not happy about that, said retired Air Force officer Bill Summers.
"You had suddenly another $75,000 you were having to pay property tax on," he said.
Summers is involved in several veterans advocacy groups and led efforts to reverse those changes. Last year, he and a few others started "Veterans Day on the Hill," a now-annual event where they could gather former service members and put them in direct contact with lawmakers, as a bloc. They also encouraged veterans groups around the state to get more political.
The efforts worked: Last year, the income limits were reversed. With this week’s vote, the original law has been restored fully — back to $175,000 in exemptions.
"It was apparent that we're not going to be successful with some of these veterans issues unless veterans got on board in greater numbers and showed our concern over this," Summers said. "We're showing proof that consolidating all of the veterans into one political voice can and does carry weight."
Veterans also pushed the state this year to pass another law, one that allows employers to give hiring preference to former military members.
Summers said he's working on formalizing a statewide group this summer that can keep lobbying for veteran-friendly legislation in the coming years.
But not all veterans groups see the gas tax as a win. The advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America has consistently expressed displeasure at the very premise of the bill, saying in a recent press release that the property tax cut for veterans was used to "help the image" of a law that will "have a devastating impact on people who rely on affordable transportation in Tennessee."