Ronald Reagan is said to have had an important reminder placed on his Oval Office desk: "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit." This is remembered mostly by people who want to make sure Reagan gets lots of credit, for everything from the end of the Cold War to the fact that the sky hasn't fallen.
It is not remembered at all by many New York politicians who have perverted worthwhile efforts toward property tax relief into exercises in shameless self-promotion.
The state of New York has been relatively flush with cash in recent years, coffers fed by its progressive income tax and its sales tax. A use for that money that is both wise and politically popular has been to mitigate the pain of ever-higher property taxes for homeowners around the state, and doing it in a way that eases the individual tax burden without hurting the local school districts that are so dependent on that property tax revenue.
In 1997, the Legislature approved New York's STAR -- School TAx Relief -- program. Homeowners can file paperwork with their local assessors to have $30,000 of their homestead's value knocked off when figuring the property taxes they owe to the local schools. An addendum called Enhanced STAR, to boost the benefits for senior citizens, was added the next year. State funds make the school districts whole. How much you save depends on your local school tax rate but, in a high tax state such as New York, it could be a lot.
Good policy. Lousy politics. Nobody was getting the credit. So, in 2006, Gov. George E. Pataki and the Legislature came up with another STAR benefit, one that people were more likely to notice.
It added to the property tax-lowering formula with a rebate, a check paid directly to qualifying taxpayers, arriving just before the 2006 elections. Members of the Legislature used separate state-funded mailings to point out their own largess, and the check stubs included a notice that the money was thanks to the governor and the Legislature.
A great many checks, reportedly as many as 200,000, were destroyed before being mailed and reissued because the first version didn't make that origin clear. And even then, according to press reports at the time, a lot of taxpayers didn't realize which heaven this manna had fallen from.
This year, there will be another round of STAR rebates. Although altered, at the insistence of new Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, to focus benefits toward the most-overtaxed middle class, the idea still is to favor homeowners around the state with gifts of a few hundred to a thousand dollars from state coffers -- being bribed with our own money.
Spitzer, to his credit, didn't argue for another round of expensive check-writing. He wanted the extra money -- $1.3 billion this year, $5 billion over three years -- to be rolled into the old STAR approach of lowering property tax assessments. But the Senate and its Republican leader, Sen. Joseph L. Bruno, insisted on the rebate approach -- the kind of thing that politicians can more easily claim credit for.
Not that Spitzer would have been above bragging about tax relief in general and targeting the middle class in particular, if it had come out as he proposed. But the Senate's insistence on issuing rebate checks clearly benefits the politicians more than the taxpayers those politicians are supposed to serve.
Rather than a nice juicy check, creating political gratitude for about as long as it takes to spend the money, New Yorkers would be better off with permanent structural changes to the still-high property taxes that make it hard to sell a home, and harder to keep one.
Newspapers across New York State are concentrating attention on issues of mutual concern through a series of occasional "Upstate Focus" editorials, with each newspaper printing its independently reached opinion on a jointly selected topic on the same day. Today's statewide topic, the first in that series, is the current practice of returning taxpayer money through rebate checks instead of tax cuts. To see what other newspapers are saying, visit buffalonews.com or upstatefocus.com; to comment on the series, visit the Matters of Opinion blog on buffalonews.com