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Deal OK'd on capping property tax rates Albany compromise has 5-year expiration

The growth of New York's high property taxes will be capped over the next five years in a deal reached Tuesday that officials say will help slow the exodus of many homeowners and businesses from the state.

The amount by which localities would be able to raise taxes in a year would face a ceiling of 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower, although some costs, such as a part of employee pensions, would be exempt from the cap.

The ceiling, though, could expire in five years under compromise language agreed to Tuesday by the Cuomo administration and lawmakers.

The cap is on the overall amount of revenue that localities, including school districts, can raise through property taxes. But individual homeowners could see their tax bills rise above the 2 percent level. There is also nothing in the deal to prevent a locality from changing the property values on which the taxes are based through revaluation.

Completing the tax cap agreement, along with other looming deals on rent-control laws for New York City tenants and a state tuition increase, clears the logistical and political obstacles for a possible showdown vote in the State Senate today on whether to legalize same-sex marriage in New York.

"I don't know how you stop a vote from happening," one Senate Republican said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The gay marriage bill is still one vote short in the Senate, where a few Republican lawmakers, including first-term Sen. Mark J. Grisanti of Buffalo, say they remain undecided.

"Not yet," Grisanti said when asked if he had made up his mind on the controversial issue. He has spent more than a week ruminating over the bill since announcing he had changed his mind from opposed to undecided.

Gay marriage opponents were urging the GOP-led Senate to kill the bill before it even reaches the floor.

"Vote it in down in Republican conference or let the people vote on it. This is such a paradigm shift in our culture that it should not be decided by 32 people in the Senate," said the Rev. Duane Motley of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms.

After all the lobbying, back-and-forth negotiations and protests that have filled the Capitol's hallways Tuesday and the preceding week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said lawmakers should not end their 2011 session without taking a formal vote.

"I think the people are entitled to a vote on this issue. Let the elected officials stand up and say aye or nay," Cuomo told reporters Tuesday night.

The governor said he introduced a bill only after believing that there was a "high likelihood" of passage. The Assembly approved the gay marriage bill last week.

Precisely when the gay marriage bill will be taken up is uncertain because no one can say with certainty when the session will end this week. Sen. James S. Alesi, a Rochester-area Republican who last week switched his vote to yes, said that it would likely be the last bill taken up by the Senate because some senators opposed to the measure would want to be able to be on the Thruway already in order to miss having to cast their votes.

As they have been for a week, the sides are still negotiating on how and whether to expand exemptions for religious organizations opposed to gay marriage rights.

"I am optimistic, but never confident," Sen. Thomas K. Duane, D-Manhattan, said of the bill. Duane, openly gay, is the bill's chief Senate proponent.

As the Legislature limps toward closing its session, Cuomo said the state is poised to make "profound changes" with adoption of such measures as a property tax cap, driving more money to the state university system with the help of a tuition increase, and a looming deal to restore for the first time in a decade a system for where to place new power plants.

But as nightfall hit the Capitol, no bills on tax caps and other major matters had been made public as the sides battled over last-minute changes.

Officials privately cautioned that the deals were still tentative, and talks were continuing through the night. Still, with legislative leaders and Cuomo signaling deals, there is little to stop final adoption on the issues in the next 24 hours or so.

The property tax cap is directly tied to extension of laws governing rent control in New York City. Senate Republicans as late as Tuesday morning insisted that the tax cap be made permanent. But Assembly Democrats, whose caucus is dominated by members from New York City, prevailed in getting the property tax cap to expire in five years unless it is renewed. The rent-control measure must be renewed four years from now.

Officials say the tax cap is effectively made permanent because provisions link it to the life of rent control, which is a World War II-era law.

Local governments insist that the cap will lead to widespread cuts in services if the state does not also undo some of the hundreds of state-imposed mandates, particularly in the area of Medicaid health services.

"We have a property tax crisis in New York State," acknowledged Stephen J. Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties. But he said counties have to pay the cost of mandated state services first; Medicaid, he noted, is the largest driver of county property taxes.

"Counties do not want to reduce road patrols, long-term nursing facilities and road projects to pay for the state's bill," Acquario said. "But we've not had any indication that there's going to be meaningful mandate relief to successfully implement the property tax cap."

With much fanfare but no detail, legislative leaders emerged from a closed-door session with Cuomo on Tuesday to say they had a "framework" deal on such matters as the tax cap and state university tuition hike.

"All we have now is a framework by which to conclude. There are still details that have to be worked out," said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan.

Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, insisted that any tax cap be made permanent to offer "a certainty to homeowners and certainly to businesses that we want to stay in this state or locate in the state to create jobs."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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