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Dancing the Long Island Jig

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This week, Lewis County legislators will take up a proposal to raise the local share of the sales tax from 3.75 percent to 4 percent. Diana Legislator Philip Hathway, who will introduce the measure, thinks he has enough votes to pass the increase at the local level. After that, however, Lewis County’s ability to regulate its own fiscal affairs passes into the hands of state Sen. Dean Skelos, a Republican whose district includes Lynn Brook, Long Beach, Rockville Center, East Rockaway and Valley Stream — all on Long Island, all far, far removed from the fiscal travails of small rural counties struggling to get by.

Sen. Skelos, the Senate majority leader, hath proclaimed that the Republican vow of no tax increases (already broken, to a degree, by agreement last year to tax the wealthiest New Yorkers by just a little more than they expected). That extends beyond his true bailiwick, the state Senate, to every taxing jurisdiction that has to ask the state Legislature for permission to raise any tax rates. Doesn’t matter to Sen. Skelos if the county seeking a modest (in Lewis County, 6.7 percent) increase in the local share of the sales tax has determined, based on its own need, that the sales tax is the best way to get revenue. Doesn’t matter to Sen. Skelos if the farmers and manufacturers of a poor rural county like Lewis or St. Lawrence may desperately need some property tax relief. Doesn’t matter to Sen. Skelos that the only way that tourism-oriented counties can tap the pockets of the hundreds of thousands of visitors that come to the county every year is by the sales tax. All Sen. Skelos cares about is his hypocritical political philosophy that taxation is wrong.

I say hypocritical because in Sen. Skelos’s county, the sales tax rate is 8.625 percent (even though 0.375 percent of that goes to the Metropolitan Transit Authority to maintain mass transit, it’s still 0.25 percent higher than the rate being sought by Lewis and St. Lawrence counties). You can bet when Nassau and Suffolk counties go looking for authorization for additional taxation, Sen. Skelos listens with a different pair of ears.

It’s also hypocritical because the party of Sen. Skelos is beating the small-government tub almost to death. I have always assumed that smaller government not only meant less, government, it also meant greater autonomy for lower levels of government, allowing counties and cities to have more say in their own governance. The New York Constitution provides that the state is a home rule state — one in which local decisions are protected, to the greatest extent possible, from state interference. But Sen. Skelos doesn’t seem to care much about that concept.

If Sen. Skelos accompanied his imposition of state rule on local governments with an acceptance that the state should pay for policies and programs handed down from the state level, maybe his adamant stand against allowing counties to raise their share of the sales tax could be swallowed. But as Mr. Hathway will tell you any time you care to listen, the state continues to impose rules on counties but increasingly fails to pay for their enforcement.

And it is here where the hypocrisy begins to trickle down. Local state legislators, whom we may have assumed have some obligation to carry the needs and desires of their constituents to Albany, have pretty much told the north country that their ultimate allegiance is to Sen. Skelos. Sen. Patty Ritchie has allowed her obeisance to Sen. Skelos to keep her from introducing local sales tax rate increases to the Senate even though St. Lawrence County officials have requested it. She has gone so far as to tell the county that it should be able to avoid a sales-tax hike simply by doing a better job with its budget. She has not suggested any ways to do that, of course — after all, when she was county clerk not so long ago, she was intimately familiar with the county’s budget, and I suspect she knows the only place the county has left to cut is in jobs.

And Sen. Joe Griffo has spoken only a tad less harshly, telling the county he might introduce legislation to increase the local share of the sales tax if it holds a referendum that shows the county’s voters are in favor of such a tax hike. Of course, he has shown his fiscal acumen with that, knowing it could cost the county $150,000 in money it really doesn’t have to hold such a vote.

Politicians at every level have to answer to their own voters. If north country voters don’t like what their county legislators are doing, it is no big task to fire them and hire somebody new. Unfortunately, many of the politicians that are making decisions for Northern New York couldn’t find Lowville without a GPS. This leaves the Ritchies and the Griffos to pretend they’re looking out for Joe Voter when what they’re really doing is dancing the Long Island Jig. And it leaves Lewis and St. Lawrence counties facing gaping budget gaps that are at least partially the fault of the very people telling them they can’t make their own fiscal decisions.

There are only 11 of the state’s 62 counties that have a sales tax rate of under 4 percent — and one of those, Westchester County, has a local tax of more than 4 percent in its four biggest cities. Of the 10 where there is a combined sales tax of under 8 percent when coupled with the state’s 4 percent rate, eight of them are north of Albany. This should scream out that it is not, in fact, unreasonable for the north country’s counties to join the rest of the state with 4 percent local tax rates.

But to the Republican hierarchy in the Senate, that scream remains unheard. And to their loyal minions, the Ritchies and the Griffos, party loyalty trumps constituent need every time.

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