Senate Republicans say they're committed to property tax plan

Patrick M. Gallivan

April 13, 2011

Capital Connection - Albany - The Buffalo News

ALBANY -- State Senate Republicans said Tuesday they will not water down a plan to hold the growth in local property tax increases at 2 percent annually, though the State Legislature's top Democrat questioned the GOP's commitment to the issue.

Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, noted that his house already has passed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's property tax plan and that now the Democratic-led Assembly's turn has come to adopt it.

The fight involves what exemptions -- beyond capital spending and court awards -- to allow. Localities say any limit on tax increases should not apply to such expenses as certain employee benefit costs.

"I don't believe our [Republican] conference is interested in saying, 'You've got a property tax cap by excluding pensions, health care, salaries.' That's New Jersey," Skelos said, referring to that state's relatively weak property tax cap.

Skelos pointed to Massachusetts, which has had a 2.5 percent tax cap since 1980. Services there have not suffered, he said.

He noted that state taxpayers could have saved $233 million last year had 435 school districts -- out of 700 statewide -- not raised property taxes beyond 2 percent.

But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who in the past has opposed limiting property tax increases, said Skelos is getting cold feet about sticking to the Senate-passed bill because of pressure from localities and some of his GOP senators.

"I think, truthfully, that Sen. Skelos has second thoughts about it and would like us not to do it and would like us to do a better bill that takes into consideration certain things that have to be taken into consideration," said Silver, a Manhattan Democrat.

He did not specify what costs should not be subject to the limit, describing them only as "things that grow beyond the 2 percent that are built into the base."

That likely would mean excluding certain employee costs, which backers say would overly weaken the impact of any limit.

Skelos was backed by several large business groups whose members pay 40 percent of the state's property taxes.

Cuomo sent signals last week that he would be open to changing his plan -- holding property tax growth to 2 percent annually, or the inflation rate, whichever is lower -- to get it through the Assembly, lawmakers said.

Does he believe Skelos has second thoughts about the tax bill?

"Yes, and ... some of his members have indicated that," Silver responded.

Earlier in the afternoon, Skelos had dismissed any interest in weakening the bill.

"If it waters down the bill, no," Skelos said when asked if would negotiate the measure.

The Cuomo administration would not specifically answer whether it is open to or seeking to amend the governor's bill by adding exemptions or raising the 2 percent limit. In a statement, Cuomo said he understands that getting a tax increase limit this session will take "good faith negotiations."