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Cuomo backs $150 million tax credit for private education

ALBANY – Time after time since he took office in 2011, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has used his veto pen to kill legislation that contained a price tag for taxpayers.

“These proposals are more appropriately discussed in the context of the state budget,” Cuomo wrote in a veto message in December about two tax-related law changes involving senior citizens and disabled people. His constant message to lawmakers: deal with fiscal matters in the budget, not before or after.

Now he wants the State Legislature to approve a major fiscal program more than two months after the budget has been put to rest. He is putting his political energy into a proposal to enact a $150 million education tax credit program to benefit mostly private and religious schools – despite his veto lectures to lawmakers against such matters coming up after the budget.

“We know that it is justice,” Cuomo told a Jewish audience in Brooklyn on Sunday. He advised attendees to vote against lawmakers who do not support his tax credit plan.

The plan also has grown in size – from the $100 million effort he pushed in March but that did not get by the Democratic-led Assembly during budget negotiations. Critics call the program a back-door school voucher initiative that, in the end, will do more to help lower tax bills of wealthy donors to private school scholarships than it will to bolster the finances of the schools.

The Cuomo administration noted Monday that the tax credit program would have no impact on the state’s current fiscal year, which ends next March 31. That’s because the tax breaks are effective after next Jan. 1 for the 2016 tax year, which means credits would not be paid to taxpayers until the 2017 calendar year.

The latest revision to the tax break program has several components. Of the $150 million, $70 million is for credits to parents with children in private schools and who have family incomes below $60,000 annually. Another $50 million in tax credits is for donors who fund scholarship programs at private schools, while a separate $20 million pot of credits is for donations supporting public schools and not-for-profit organizations, such as charter schools. A fourth pot of $10 million will provide tax credits of up to $200 annually per public school teacher for instructional supplies.

Cuomo says there are 400,000 students in private and religious schools in the state.

The Republican-led State Senate supports the education tax credit, but it has run into roadblocks in the Assembly, which has opposed the use of taxpayer funding to help pay for tuition at private schools.

On Monday, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said the education tax credit matter is still being discussed, but added it is a “very challenging issue” for the Assembly Democrats.

Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Assembly education committee, said the state has increased – to about $170 million – funding for parochial schools for services, such as transportation and special education. “There’s certainly always a lot of receptivity to try to help parochial school parents within constitutional means,” Nolan said.

But she said it is her understanding that the tax credits for scholarship donations could end up benefiting out-of-state schools. “I certainly have a lot of reservations about this legislation,” Nolan said.

The New York State United Teachers union on Monday began a statewide ad campaign opposing the private school tax breaks, calling Cuomo’s plan “a shell game allowing corporations and the super-rich to divert tax dollars to elite private schools.”