Lawmaker calls for property tax cap

June 12, 2008 1:54:40 PM PDT
Senate Democratic leader Malcolm Smith on Thursday called for a 2 percent cap on the growth in local property taxes, lending the first support of a legislative leader to Gov. David Paterson's foundering effort to cap property taxes. "Everyone agrees to the need for relief of property taxes and we have to do it now," Smith told The Associated Press. The Queens Democrat noted polls show overwhelming support for a property tax cap, despite opposition by the Senate's Republican majority and the Democrats who control the Assembly.

A day earlier, Paterson had criticized the majorities for not even introducing his bill and opposing it with "no hearings, no deliberation, no discussion, no debate, and no alternative." New York has the nation's highest property taxes - 79 percent above the national average. The proposal made last week is opposed by the state's powerful teachers unions who are major campaign donors to lawmakers, with most of the millions going to the majority parties.

In Albany, however, minority party leaders like Smith have little power under the Legislature's rules. But Smith's support of a priority of the governor, with great power, over an ultra-hot topic for New Yorkers in an election year could be enough to muster a viable challenge to Albany's powerful majority system.

"I'm in this business to do what I think is right, not just what people tell me," Smith said. His comments came a day after meeting with a coalition of school funding advocates opposed to a tax cap to try to reach a consensus. But if he can't get that agreement by the lobbyists who are pressuring lawmakers, Smith said he will still seek a tax cap.

"Then I will take a hard stand on a tax cap," Smith said. Smith would limit annual local property tax growth to 2 percent - half of Paterson's cap - but Smith wouldn't allow voters in local school districts to override the cap.

Paterson has noted school vote turnout is notoriously small, about 12 percent, even though taxpayer "anger" is hot and getting hotter as frustration over annual increases build.

"The elections are so small they can be manipulated," Smith said, saying the votes held in May can be a "sham."

Paterson, Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, continued to disagree over the tax cap at a press conference Thursday. Smith was the only one of the leaders - including Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco - to decline to speak at the midday press conference.

Smith has been critical of inaction this legislative session and Tedisco on Thursday said the Legislature can't let a disruptive session - in which combative Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned March 17 because of a prostitution investigation - be an excuse to do nothing. The session ends June 23.

"Leadership (in Albany) is so old school in terms of not moving things forward," Smith said in an interview before the press conference.

Paterson said he was pleased legislative leaders have recently come forward to discuss the tax cap proposal.

Paterson said he would be willing to negotiate changes to his proposal, which might not get a legislative airing until a special session later in the year.

Bruno said he doesn't support Paterson's call for a cap of 4 percent on property tax growth because taxes need to be cut - not curbed. He cited his Republican proposal that would call for a 20 percent cut in property taxes over three years, compensated for by more state funding. But that proposal has gotten no interest in the Assembly's Democratic majority.

Silver said he will discuss the tax cap as long as school funding is guaranteed, so that instruction isn't hurt. He seeks a more comprehensive proposal than a tax cap.

Smith said he would be willing to push for a debate on the cap before the fall elections, which would pressure Senate Republicans as they try to cling to a one-vote majority. Smith said he thinks he might be able to persuade some Republicans to cross to his side when they face pressure from voters in the campaigns.

"Self-preservation is the first law of nature," he said.