Supporters of property tax cap anxiously await Spitzer speech

If the best Gov. Eliot Spitzer can come up with today in his State of the State address is a commiss
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Categories: Schenectady County

If the best Gov. Eliot Spitzer can come up with today in his State of the State address is a commission to study whether to enact a property tax cap, then he just shouldn’t bother, according to Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, R-Schenectady.

“Unless Gov. Spitzer comes out in support of a property tax cap and actually commits himself to passing it,” Tedisco said in a news release, “then I think this session — and possibly his governorship — will be characterized as a failure.”

There has been widespread media speculation this week that the governor will propose some kind of percentage cap on property tax increases, or at least a commission to study that and the reasons for the high rates of property tax paid by New Yorkers. The governor’s press office declined to confirm or deny the reports, as did the governor. But last August at Hofstra University on Long Island, Spitzer said he was open to the idea of a tax cap. He had opposed a cap in the 2006 election campaign, when it was supported by his Republican opponent, John Faso.

“We were hearing rumors out of the governor’s office … that there will be a commission to study the feasibility of a cap and unfunded mandates,” said Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers.

His boss, NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, said, “In general, a property tax cap is not a good idea.” It would take decisions out of the hands of voters, he said, and could increase the disparity between rich and poor school districts.

E.J. McMahon, director of the fiscally conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy, is an enthusiastic supporter of caps, and of a bill to enact them sponsored by Tedisco’s Republican conference. That bill (A-8775) was modeled after the cap in former Gov. George Pataki’s School Tax Relief (STAR) Program proposal, which was dropped in negotiations with the Legislature before STAR was passed.

The bill would cap school tax increases at 4 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. Similar measures in Massachusetts and other states have held down property taxes to levels far below New York’s, McMahon said. New York’s high property taxes are widely seen as a key factor driving businesses and people out of upstate New York, and McMahon said school taxes make up most of the burden.

While STAR does not control spending, and thus serves ultimately as a subsidy to school districts, McMahon said a tax cap would be a very significant reform, if enacted.

But David Albert, spokesman for the state School Boards Association, said a tax cap “doesn’t address the root causes that are driving up school budgets.” The association might support a commission with a broader mandate to study tax issues, Albert said.

If Spitzer does propose a tax cap, its prospects are uncertain in the Legislature. NYSUT, Iannuzzi said, would lobby against it, and it has a lot of influence with legislators. Dan Weiller, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, declined to comment on the prospect of a tax cap.

Scott Reif, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, said the Senate is focused on its own proposals to reduce property taxes. But he told The Associated Press that the Senate could support a local property tax cap.

McMahon said the Assembly did pass a one-house bill a dozen years ago that capped all property taxes, as it maneuvered for advantage against Pataki, who was proposing income-tax cuts. Silver was speaker then, too, but his house has not returned to the issue, McMahon said.

The AP reported that Spitzer wants the state to pay off the student loans of physicians who agree to serve rural and urban areas without enough doctors, an administration official said.

Spitzer is also considering a $1 billion Upstate Revitalization Fund and other measures to renew downtowns and attract businesses. And he may seek to name the Triborough Bridge connecting Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the assassinated Democratic presidential candidate.

The cost of the initiatives won’t be part of today’s State of the State speech, which is expected to include big ideas for creating high-tech jobs and transforming the state’s economy through higher education. Spending details will come Jan. 22, when Spitzer proposes his 2008-09 budget to the Legislature, which should include how to deal with a $4.3 billion deficit.

“We are facing choppy waters as we look out at the national landscape, economically,” Spitzer said Tuesday. “But we have enormous demands here in the state, enormous obligations to invest in education and health care and infrastructure. Jobs, jobs, jobs is what we are going to be focusing on.”

The Senate’s Republican majority, which has clashed with the Democratic governor since June, has its own “Upstate Now” proposal. It would more broadly apply tax breaks and incentives to retain and attract employers. But despite some similarities with Spitzer’s proposal, the Senate plan didn’t become law last year.

The program to ease a doctor shortage, if approved and funded by the Legislature, is aimed at relieving a shortage of medical care in the northern part of the state as well as inner cities, the administration official said on the condition of anonymity because the speech wasn’t yet finished.

“Doctors Across New York” would provide grants to repay student loans and other unspecified inducements to reach a goal of providing a family doctor for every New York household, the official said.

The program will also address the problem of medical students leaving college and training with loan debt of more than $100,000. The official had no estimate of the program’s cost.

In the Adirondack Park, there are only dozens of primary care physicians serving the 6 million-acre forest land, which is bigger in area than some states. Health care administrators have said they are having a tougher time than ever recruiting and retaining doctors — one hospital this year pleaded for new doctors through mass mailings.

The shortage is not isolated to primary care doctors and includes the full range of medical specialties from pediatricians to oncologists. The University at Albany’s Center for Health Workforce Studies reported there is roughly one doctor for every 535 residents in the counties that make up the bulk of the Adirondacks compared with one doctor for every 311 people in the state as a whole.

“This is exactly what we’re calling for to head off a crisis,” said Dr. John Rugge, chief executive officer of the Hudson Headwaters Health Network in the Adirondacks. “We know without this kind of program, doctors are going to disappear from the North Country.”

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