No tax news is good news, for now

by E.J. McMahon |  | NY Torch

CircuitBreakerPanelOne of the best things about New York’s newly adopted state budget for fiscal 2016 is something that’s not in it (yet): a costly new state subsidy of homeowners’ local property taxes.

Governor Cuomo’s Executive Budget proposal included an income tax credit (of the type also known as a “circuit breaker”) that, when fully implemented by 2019, would funnel $1.7 billion a year to about half of the state’s homeowners, plus renters.

For homeowners earning less than $250,000, the credit would reimburse up to half of total local property taxes to the extent they exceed 6 percent of gross income—providing all the jurisdictions imposing those taxes are within the state property tax cap.  (In other words, the state would subsidize taxes only for people whose tax growth is limited.)

However, Senate Republicans preferred a universal state tax giveback modeled on the short-lived “Middle Class STAR Rebate”, whose 2009 repeal has been mourned by the GOP conference (if not anyone else) ever since.

All this would come on top of the main STAR (School Tax Relief) program, initiated by Governor Pataki in 1998, structured as an aid program to pay for homestead exemptions and New York City income tax breaks, which now costs about $3.3 billion a year.

Cuomo also sought to convert STAR from a homestead exemption into an income tax credit. However, the governor and the Senate apparently were unable to resolve their differences in back room budget negotiations, and so no property tax-related measure has been passed at all — for now.

That’s not bad news, for reasons laid out last week in an op-ed last week that (wrongly) assumed they would agree to something:

That money could be better spent on permanently reducing income taxes across the board and ratcheting down the steep additional “millionaire tax” Cuomo has twice extended since late 2011.

But the Legislature, like the governor, is now less interested in creating a more competitive income-tax code than in creating the illusion Albany is actually doing something about high local property taxes.

The only question now, it appears, is not whether Albany will pass a new state-funded property-tax break, but how it will be structured.

Turns out that’s still an open question — apparently an end-of-session question. Maybe by then the governor and the Senate will also have gotten serious about their promises to seek permanent enactment of the property tax cap. The Senate’s inclusion of a permanent cap in its one-house budget resolution turned out to be little more than a symbolic gesture; the issue never seems to have seriously arisen in horse-trading over the budget.

Another case of addition by subtraction was the removal of a new $69 million state tax on health insurance premiums to pay for the cost of setting up the state’s health insurance exchange under Obamacare. The average $25 per policy hit would have added to more than $1 billion in “covered lives” assessments the state already imposes on health insurance policies.

However, among other tax actions, the Legislature did agree to sneak in a new provision that would reduce sales taxes on luxury yachts priced at more than $230,000.

Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos said the move was justified because it “creates jobs” and “makes New York State more competitive.” Besides, dealers supporting the measure noted, other states have been aggressively reducing taxes on pleasure boats.

Of course, the same sort of justifications are offered for bigger special tax breaks in New York’s loophole-ridden tax code, such as the $420 million-a-year Film Tax Credit.  The passage of the yacht exemption will only add to pressure for more “job creating” giveaways, like a proposed music production tax credit that failed to make it into the budget despite a lobbying push from the industry.



- E.J. McMahon is the Research Director at the Empire Center for Public Policy.