There’s a key component missing from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to “cut” property taxes: It doesn’t cut them at all.

The governor acknowledges that property taxes are among the most significant problems facing New York’s struggling economy. But his solution doesn’t seek to reduce anyone’s actual tax bill. Rather, he’s looking to offset the burden—for some—with an income tax credit.

Cuomo’s proposed credit is also known as a “circuit-breaker,” because it selectively aids a segment of homeowners whom the law deems “overloaded” by their property tax bills.

Homeowners making under $250,000 whose property taxes exceed 6 percent of their income would receive a subsidy, paid from the state’s general fund, to cover part of their bill.

If this approach sounds familiar, it’s because New York is already spending over $3 billion annually on a similar subsidy, the School Tax Relief (STAR) program.

Unfortunately, STAR was visibly counterproductive, as property tax levies began increasing even faster after the state began subsidizing them in the 1990s. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise: when you subsidize something, you tend to get more of it.

STAR dulled the pain of taxes for a time while allowing the total tax burden to get heavier. A circuit-breaker would have a similar effect.

Besides ignoring the high property taxes paid by businesses, including many farms, the circuit-breaker formula would leave about half of all homeowners empty-handed.

At the same time, it would offer some of the largest benefits to residents of localities that have done the least to control expenses. Credits for Buffalo residents would effectively help pay for the $5 million annual price tag of the free tummy tucks, botox injections and cosmetic surgery given to its teachers.

Meanwhile, a disproportionately large number of credits would go to Long Island, where the median public school teacher salary is over $104,000 and the average county police officer is paid over $150,000. Why should sales and income tax collected in a lower-tax county like Saratoga be used to make up for high spending by elected officials in Nassau County?

Instead of creating a new, costly entitlement that will only benefit some, shouldn’t the state focus on permanently solving the property tax problem for everyone?

High property taxes are the result of high spending, and in this case, the governor is talking about the symptom instead of targeting the disease.

The good news is that Cuomo took a very big step towards an actual cure in 2011, when he created the property tax cap. Unlike STAR, the property tax cap has proven successful at reducing the rate at which property taxes increase.

However, the cap is in currently set to expire in June 2016. Unless the Legislature acts on the governor’s promised call to make it permanent, New Yorkers would be susceptible to the massive tax hikes they saw in the years before the cap.

Once the tax cap is in place for good, local governments and school districts must be given the ability to live under it. The state may not set local property taxes, but it does contribute heavily to the costs behind them in the form of unfunded mandates.

If Albany granted our municipalities and school districts more flexibility in contract negotiations and the way they deliver services, local officials would truly be able to cut taxes.

Unlike the circuit-breaker, these are changes that wouldn’t cost New Yorkers a penny. The only price is the political will of the governor and legislators to stand up to the people who oppose change. Public-sector unions, for example, are fiercely protective of a law that allows them to continue receiving raises in perpetuity after their contracts have expired; they also resist any efforts to modernize the way our towns, cities, counties and school districts fund their retirements.

Make no mistake, with the tax cap and mandate relief, Albany has the ability to cure New York’s property tax ailment once and for all. Gov. Cuomo should be applauded for recognizing this problem, but New Yorkers don’t need a circuit-breaker. They need an “off” switch.

About the Author

Ken Girardin

Ken Girardin is the Empire Center’s Director of Strategic Initiatives.

Read more by Ken Girardin

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