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It’s hard not to be cynical about state property tax rebates

Usually, New York State wants you to ditch paper. “Go paperless!” the website for the Department of Motor Vehicles exclaims in the section on registering a car. “Good news!” begins a welcoming message by the Department of Taxation and Finance for those looking to print out the standard income tax form. It goes on to explain that 90 percent of New Yorkers can e-file for free.

Even the Legislature got rid of paper copies of bills in favor of desktop tablets to save the reams of paper that used to stack up on lawmakers’ desks.

How about when the state hands out the latest round of property tax rebates approved by lawmakers last week? Those will arrive in your mailbox on an old-fashioned paper check.

Many a cynic in New York State has pointed out that the timing of the new $185 rebates for upstate homeowners will land suspiciously close to Election Day 2016, when all state legislators must face the voters.

But, really, why bother? It’s hard to imagine that sending checks to voters is a very effective way to convince them that Albany is working. Most voters – though willing to cash a check no matter how small the amount – will see them as just another political gimmick.

There’s also the fact that the last round of rebate checks didn’t even arrive in many mailboxes until early this year, well after the 2014 election.

E.J. McMahon thinks it’s more about bolstering talking points for state lawmakers. “This is reverse-engineered from the press release they wanted to issue, which is: ‘We did property tax relief,’ ” said McMahon, president of the fiscally conservative watchdog Empire Center for Public Policy.

McMahon sees the checks as a politically expedient way to avoid any real reform. He points to a long list of items – from mandate relief to paying off a deferred pension bill – that might have been a better way to spend the $1.3 billion that the program will cost.

Not to mention that the state could have just made it a credit on your tax return, skipping the cost of mailing out millions of paper checks.

“Aside from the issue of whether you should do it at all, this is administratively the most cumbersome, inefficient way to do it,” McMahon said.

Just ask any attorney or accountant who regularly deals with the state tax department. For years, the agency has pushed preparers and taxpayers into the paperless realm, encouraging paperless filings, direct deposits and electronic reporting.

“It certainly seems somewhat antiquated given their move in that direction,” said Joseph Endres, a tax attorney for Hodgson Russ who avoided weighing in on the program’s merits.

Cuomo administration officials say the timing of the checks is geared toward getting the money to homeowners earlier than they would if it was just another credit on a tax return.

“This program puts direct property tax relief in the hands of taxpayers closer to when property tax bills are due,” said Morris Peters, a spokesman for the state Division of the Budget.

Chances are, by the time the check arrives in the mail, many New Yorkers will be hard-pressed to remember exactly what it was all about. But it’s doubtful they’ll see it as real property tax relief in a state where people pay taxes that are among the highest in the nation. New Yorkers are smarter than that. Or at least more cynical.