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'In for a penny' still an issue for Legislature

Erie County legislators, although eager to avoid a repeat of past contentious budget debates, find themselves faced with the same old problem: How to handle the sales tax?

Memories of the red and green budgets -- originally proposed two years ago -- still linger in people's minds.

So does the humiliating suggestion by State Comptroller Alan Hevesi that Erie County's elected leaders needed "adult supervision."

Lawmakers say this year's budget debate will be different, but with County Executive Joel A. Giambra set to unveil his 2007 proposal Monday, the same question that tripped them up last year and the year before is again staring them straight in the face:

What will they do about the sales tax?

A Buffalo News survey of the County Legislature's 15 members -- nine of them brand new to the budget process -- found a majority support an extension of the three-quarters of a penny increase in the sales tax.

"I'm not going to send our community into crisis again," said Majority Leader Maria Whyte, a Buffalo Democrat and a new member. "The drama has to end."

Whyte is among a growing number of lawmakers who see the three-quarters of a penny increase and the nearly $100 million in revenue it generates as an essential part of the 2008 budget.

One of the unanswered questions in this year's budget debate is whether that support is strong enough to garner the 10 votes needed to approve an extension of the three-quarters of a penny.

The sales tax was at the crux of the 2004 and 2005 stalemates. Legislators also know that raising taxes is rarely popular with the voters.

"I'd like to see reform before we extend the tax," said Legislator Barry A. Weinstein of Amherst, one of three Republicans on the Legislature. "The sales tax is the end around to cutting inefficiencies."

The other wild card is the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority, the state-authorized board overseeing county finances. The board wants assurances that 10 legislators will vote for the extension before it expires Nov. 30 of next year.

"We want to avoid 2004 and 2005 all over again," said Kenneth Vetter, executive director of the control board. "We're looking for concrete evidence that public officials who have the ability to move this [sales tax] forward are willing to move this forward."

The desire for the Legislature to act sooner, rather than later, may be the big rub this year.

Some lawmakers seem content to wait until sometime next year, especially if that means more time and energy spent on cutting costs.

"I don't think it's an issue," said Minority Leader Michael H. Ranzenhofer of Amherst. "Before you start talking about extending taxes, you should look at ways of cutting the cost of government."

Others, many of them eager to keep the control board at bay, want to begin the cumbersome process of extending the tax this year.

Those same lawmakers remind their colleagues that the three-quarters of a penny expires in November 2007, leaving the county with only 11 months worth of revenue if the 10 votes can't be found.

They also remember what happened last year and the year before, and how many of their legislative colleagues felt pressured to vote against the sales tax increase.

"The sooner we move forward without the naysayers and cynics, the better," said Democrat George A. "Butch" Holt Jr. of Buffalo.

Lawmakers know the control board is watching their every move and could point to a delay in approving the sales tax extension as one reason they should turn from a "soft" advisory board into a "hard" board with significantly more power over the county.

They also know the public is growing tired of the politics and failed leadership that dominated budget deliberations the past two years.

"My goal is to have a smooth, sane and stable budget process," said Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda. "I don't think any of us, especially those of us who were here in the dark days, want to relive that experience."

The experience Marinelli and others want to avoid repeating began in late 2004, when Giambra unveiled his red and green budgets.

In the end, lawmakers rejected Giambra's call for a penny increase in the sales tax and instead approved a 2005 budget that laid off 1,200 county employees and closed libraries and parks.

Even with those deep cuts, the budget fell out of balance and the Legislature, in the middle of the year, approved a quarter-penny increase.

A few months later, as part of the 2006 budget deliberations, they voted to raise the tax another half-penny to 8.75 percent.

The question now is: Will the Legislature keep the whole three-quarters of a penny or try to find some way of reducing it?

Legislators Cynthia E. Locklear, D-West Seneca, and John J. Mills, R-Orchard Park, are not dead-set against keeping the three-quarters of a penny, but they want their colleagues to look first at additional budget cuts as a way of lowering the rate.

"I want to see cuts," Mills said. "I think there's still ample opportunity to cut the size of government."

More and more, it looks like the sales tax may again be the most divisive issue this budget season.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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