State property tax cap

Canandaigua, New York -- If nothing else, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has put the “functional” in New York’s infamously dysfunctional state government.

During his first six months, state lawmakers have passed an on-time state spending plan, closed a $10 billion budget gap, reduced the size of state government, formalized tuition increases for SUNY schools, passed a modicum of ethics reform, legalized same-sex marriage and instituted a cap on annual property tax increases.

Governor, you had us at “on-time budget.”

It has been a productive and professional session. But the governor’s stop in nearby Monroe County Wednesday to beat the drum for the property tax cap raises a subject where legislative achievement has been unsatisfactory.

“If there’s one problem plaguing people in this state, it’s property taxes,” Cuomo said from the front yard of Mike and Amanda Ostrander of Glenmont Drive in Irondequoit. “We pay the highest property taxes in the U.S., and they’ve gone up 73 percent over the past decade. ... Today, the madness stops.”

Cuomo gets no argument on the “we pay the highest property taxes” part of his remarks. The mean property tax in New York is $3,755 — almost twice the national average. But that “today the madness stops” claim leaves us skeptical.

Because instituting a tax cap won’t mean anything if the state itself doesn’t first cease passing laws that it forces local municipalities to pay for, then reverse (or help fund) some of its existing mandates.

The cap requires local governments and school districts to limit their annual tax increases to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.

One unintended consequence: The law gives cover to entities that might have been even stingier with their tax levy (the village of Palmyra in Wayne County, for example, reduced its tax levy this year). But the bigger problem is the state itself — its long list of mandates and its miles of red tape. Until those are addressed, Albany, N.Y., passing a law against higher taxes will do about as much good as Minot, N.D., passing a law against the Souris River overflowing its banks.

The local alternatives are cuts in jobs and services — potentially deeper than residents or municipalities would otherwise approve — or overriding the tax cap.

The latter can be done via a 60 percent vote, but that does little more than defeat the purpose of the tax cap entirely.

The fight against astronomical property taxes in New York requires a good one-two punch. Albany has landed the first blow with the tax cap. It must know deliver the knockout punch: meaningful mandate reform.

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