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Rebate checks of $185 for upstate homeowners OK’d in Albany

ALBANY – Upstate homeowners will get rebate checks in the fall of 2016 totaling $185 apiece as part of an omnibus agreement reached Thursday at the Capitol.

Not without some coincidence, the rebate checks can be mailed by the state as late as Oct. 15, just three weeks before all state lawmakers go before voters in next year’s elections.

In all, the rebate check program – which critics say could be easier and cheaper through credits on state income taxes rather than mailed checks – will total $3.1 billion over four years, with 40 percent of the rebate dollars coming in the final year of the initiative in 2019.

Individual checks will be higher by the fourth year and will be based on a percentage of a homeowner’s annual check under the STAR property tax relief program.

The legislation states that rebate checks will go to all homeowners outside New York City. Beginning in the second year, checks will go to those enrolled in the STAR program, and who also reside in communities whose school districts do not exceed the annual property tax cap. By the second year, the program also gives larger tax breaks to lower-income New Yorkers.

The formula for determining rebate check levels starts easily in the first year: $185 if a taxpayer lives upstate.

In the second year, the rebate is based on a resident’s existing STAR property tax savings, so people with incomes of under $75,000 will get a rebate check based on 28 percent of the STAR annual savings. Those with incomes over $75,000 but less than $150,000 will see a rebate that is 20.5 percent of STAR savings. Higher incomes will get a lower percentage.

By 2019, the program’s fourth year, the biggest benefits will be seen when the program’s total cost to the state will be $1.3 billion. People with incomes under $75,000, for instance, will get 85 percent of their STAR savings in a separate rebate check, while checks worth 60 percent of STAR savings will go to taxpayers making between $75,000 and $150,000.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called the rebate program “real relief” for homeowners.

The rebates were among several last-minute deals made Thursday at the Capitol – including the Legislature agreeing to a surprise and unusual demand by the governor that he be allowed to officiate at weddings.

Cuomo said that he had no weddings in mind but that he has been asked to officiate at many same-sex marriage ceremonies and that a number of government officials, except the governor, are already afforded the authority.

The final legislation permits not just Cuomo, but also former Govs. David A. Paterson, Eliot L. Spitzer and George E. Pataki to officiate at weddings.

The decision by Cuomo and legislative leaders to put down their pencils and shake hands on a final deal came more than a week after the 2015 legislative session was scheduled to end. The agreements were released at dinnertime Thursday and were contained in a 72-page bill that, sticking to Albany tradition, is called the “Big Ugly” because it mixes any number of unrelated measures into one omnibus bill.

“You could always want better, but we have to realize we live in the reality that this is a bicameral Legislature and the Republicans in the Senate have their own vision of what they’d like to see and you do the best you can and try to compromise,” said Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx.

Lawmakers were set close the session late Thursday night or early Friday morning.

The Big Ugly agreement also paved the way for the Assembly to pass bills Thursday evening extending the ability of counties, such as Erie, to maintain existing sales tax rates. The Assembly held off passing the bills – worth hundreds of millions of dollars to localities across the state – as leverage in talks with Senate Republicans.

The final set of agreements put some teeth on broad parameters announced Tuesday by Cuomo, Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan Jr., R-Huntington. An existing cap on charter schools will not be lifted, but it will be reconfigured to permit more of the schools in New York City. Despite a multimillion-dollar political campaign, an effort to give tax breaks as a way to benefit nonpublic schools died earlier this week, as did a push by Cuomo to raise from 16 to 18 the age of teenagers to be treated as adults for most crimes.

Among the items that did get approved is a four-year extension of the state’s property tax cap, which sets an annual limit on how much localities, including school districts, can raise their overall property tax levy.

The formula that drives the levy limit includes exclusions to take into account such things as a community’s growth; lawmakers added two new exclusions: to take into account Board of Cooperative Educational Services payments and what are known as payments in lieu of taxes.

Cuomo and the Legislature rejected more ambitious cap formula exclusion requests by localities, such as money spent on infrastructure improvements and growth in school district enrollments.

The homeowner rebate program will cost the state $3.1 billion over four years, with $1.3 billion of the costs coming in 2019.

E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a budget watchdog group, called the rebate program a “costly political contrivance.” He said Cuomo and lawmakers want residents to think that their property taxes are being lowered when all the program does is use state taxpayer revenues to fund rebates to some residents.

“It’s a gimmick,” McMahon said. “It’s a way of burning up $3 billion over four years to support a marketing campaign to convince you they have cut your property taxes. They might as well pretend it’s a rebate on sales taxes or your cable TV bill.”

Instead, he said, Albany missed another opportunity to reduce state-imposed mandates on localities that drive up property taxes.

The final bill calls for a $25 million bailout of the Yonkers public schools, but no additional money – Cuomo recently proposed a $100 million fund – for other financially ailing school districts in upstate. Rochester will get an earmark of $6 million to address child poverty issues.

The omnibus legislation also seeks to, according to Flanagan, improve student outcomes by providing more transparency for parents and teachers regarding Common Core-based standardized tests. “It seems kind of crazy, but the teacher has to administer exams to a child in the third grade, but they don’t get the results until November, when there has been a summer and the teacher is no longer with that child and the child is no longer with that teacher,” Flanagan said.

The changes come after record opt-out rates by parents who kept their children away from recent Common Core tests.

The deal calls for the state Education Department to release by June 1 test questions and answers from the most recent English and math standardized tests given to students in grades three through eight. A model for student improvement used in the evaluation of teachers will also have to take into consideration such student characteristics as poverty, English language learners and those with disabilities. Moreover, a “content review committee,” which must include classroom teachers, will be created to go over standardized test questions.

Heastie said the only major changes made since a framework deal with Cuomo and Flanagan was announced Tuesday was the provision giving the governor the legal authority to preside at weddings.

“I don’t know if I’d want him,” Heastie said when asked if he would have Cuomo officiate if he ever got married.

The comment, presumably a joke, came after what various sources have described as spirited – translation: heated – talks, especially between Cuomo and Heastie, over issues involving New York City rent-control laws.

The session ends with Cuomo, through unnamed administration officials, going through media outlets to bash New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat; in one case, an anonymous Cuomo official described the mayor as “bumbling.”

Asked by a reporter Thursday if he was the anonymous official quoted Wednesday, Cuomo acknowledged saying “lot of things” the previous day. The nondenial denial also included Cuomo saying that he talks off the record sometimes because it is “faster.”