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LEAVE SALES TAX ALONE SPARE US THE WRATH OF A PARTY OUT OF POWER

IT'S TOUGH being a voice in the wilderness. But judging by what the Erie County Legislature's Republican minority has to say in its latest jab, it's better that no one listens.

Shunted to the sidelines by recent election results, the minority caucus's latest scheme for recapturing the political spotlight is the last refuge of political "outs" everywhere: complain about taxes and make an appeal to "let the voters decide."

In this case, it's the call for a referendum on rolling back the county's 8 percent sales tax. The proposal is expected to be aired at Thursday's Legislature meeting and should be quickly deflated.

Lambasting the tax -- hiked from 7 percent in 1985 to solve county fiscal problems -- is a popular pastime for any politician looking to score points. But part of public officials' job is to make tough decisions. They are elected to study issues in more depth than voters have the time or resources to do, not to spout off simplistically.

County Executive Gorski and the Democratic majority on the Legislature have done their job this year by balancing the budget through use of the $86 million that the 1 percent brings in, plus property tax revenue and other income. As it is, the budget includes more layoffs, service cuts and an increase in the property tax levy.

The Republican proposal to cut the 1 percent sales tax by one-eighth each year would exacerbate the problem by putting a $10.75 million hole in the budget. Given the service cuts and layoffs already imposed, and the reality of state mandates controlling much of the budget, the most responsible way of closing that gap would be through even higher property taxes. Is that what Minority Leader Mary Lou Rath and her cohorts are advocating?

As for their proposed cutbacks, a minute's reflection on one key plank of their alternative budget proposed earlier this month reveals the blatantly political nature of their initiatives. The Republicans proposed effectively dismantling the county Finance Department and transferring its duties to the comptroller's office.

This from the same lawmakers who, in the final days of the Republican Rutkowski administration, helped kill the reform to transfer some powers from the Finance Department to the comptroller. Now that a Democrat runs the Rath Building, is the whole department suddenly expendable?

These are also the same Republicans who now contend the county should not attempt to end the year with a surplus. Building a surplus is a prudent way of governing, and one has to look no further than this year's crisis with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra or the state budget -- both of which may affect the county budget -- to find the proof.

Transparent attempts to handcuff or embarrass a government controlled by rivals do little to help taxpayers and only make the party on the sidelines appear bankrupt of real ideas. The Republican minority can do better.

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