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STAR rebate checks still an elusive goal

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An election-year promise to reinstate a popular property tax rebate has proved difficult for Republicans in the state Senate to keep.

In 2010, several Republican Senate candidates campaigned on a promise to reinstate rebate checks for the School Tax Relief program, also known as STAR, which were eliminated in 2009. Then-St. Lawrence County Clerk Patricia A. Ritchie, a Republican candidate for state Senate, pounced, accusing Senate Democrats of passing a tax hike for having done away with the rebate part of the program.

But a year later, STAR rebates aren’t back, and they’re not in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed budget, either. Mrs. Ritchie said she’s still committed to the elusive goal.

“We’re in difficult times in Albany with the budget deficits,” said Sen. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton. “I don’t support raising taxes to pay for anything. With that being said, I think it’s important enough that we need to look and see if there’s other ways to fund this.”

Mr. Cuomo’s budget closed a $2 billion gap, with the help of a tax hike on wealthy residents that came with a small tax cut for middle-income earners. His budget last year closed a $10 billion gap.

In 2010, Mrs. Ritchie was a candidate for state Senate running against Democratic Sen. Darrel J. Aubertine, D-Cape Vincent. She criticized Mr. Aubertine for his vote to end the program, and said that “tough choices” would be required to reinstate it.

But the program’s comeback has yet to materialize. She said she had conversations with fellow members of her Republican caucus on Monday about the program. She suggested phasing in the program so it would apply to senior citizens first.

“I’m certainly not alone in the conference of people that actually support it,” she said.

Much of the STAR program, which provide tax exemptions for homeowners, still exists. The program was funded at $3.3 billion in the governor’s proposed budget, the same level as last year.

Mrs. Ritchie reminded residents in her weekly column that the deadline to apply for the Enhanced STAR program, for residents 65 and older, is March 1 for most homeowners and Nov. 1 for those in the city of Watertown.

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, said Monday that while she supports changes to the STAR program, rebate checks aren’t the way to go. The program’s overhead costs and the fact that very wealthy households were eligible made the program unworkable and undesirable, critics said — like taking money from one pocket and putting it into another.

Mrs. Russell said the state last year kicked those who earn more than $500,000 annually out of the STAR program.

“Rebate checks are not the most targeted way to make sure funds are going to those who need it most,” she said.

Mr. Aubertine, who is now the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Markets after his 2010 loss, said he wasn’t involved in Cuomo administration policy discussions about the rebate, but said: “Again, it’s the cost of it. How are you going to pay for it? I’m sure that’s part of the equation.”

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