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March 21, 2014

In Our Opinion: Tax 'freeze' is a political con

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The Daily Star

---- — Gov. Andrew Cuomo called it “the single best thing the Legislature can do for the state of New York.” But Michael Borges of the New York State Association of School Business Officials called it “bad for our schools, it’s bad for our students, and, ultimately, it’s bad for the state of New York.”  

What’s got Albany so divided is a particularly juicy-sounding carrot that Cuomo is holding out to municipalities and school districts that stay within the property tax cap. 

Cuomo wants to offer state rebates to taxpayers whose local governments or school districts stay under the cap. The rebate would continue for a second year if the government or school files a plan to share services and further cut the tax levy. This constitutes what Cuomo is somewhat creatively calling a “two-year property tax freeze.” He also has proposed a “circuit breaker” plan that would provide additional credits for those whose property taxes take up a certain portion of their income. 

But so far, his plan hasn’t gone over well with the state Legislature. The Assembly budget took up the “circuit breaker” idea, but rejected the freeze. The Senate budget went the in other direction, tweaking the freeze idea by giving the tax credit, not to individual taxpayers, but to the municipalities themselves, and throwing out the “circuit breaker.” 

Cuomo backpedaled a bit this week, tweaking the idea of the rebate to also reward municipalities that keep taxes flat. But it’s still not clear if legislators are biting. And many municipal officials have complained that there is little left to cut. 

On the face of it, Cuomo’s plan could be a win for the local area. Very few local governments or school districts have exceeded the cap since it was put into place. Initial budgets submitted to the state do not show any local school districts exceeding the cap this year. So we could all be in line to receive some extra cash. Great, right? 

But the logic of this “free money” is somewhat cloudy. How does it make sense to give more money to governments that say they don’t need it — or taxpayers who are already paying less? 

This is less a common-sense proposal and more of a political gambit. The real winners from this proposal will be the elected officials who can campaign on the slogan that they held down property taxes for struggling New Yorkers. Good for them — not so great for our cash-strapped schools. 

If Albany wanted to deliver meaningful change for local governments, schools and taxpayers, we’d rather see some of that mandate relief they’ve been promising us for years. That would do a lot more than this shell game, which only moves money around to make politicians look good.