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Editorial: Plenty of blame to go around after state bungles delivery of tax rebate checks

This shouldn’t be so difficult. In another state, it wouldn’t have to be done at all. But New York’s STAR program is meant to defray the exorbitant cost of school taxes in the state that spends more per student than any other – and for results that are no better than average.

STAR, as the New York State School Tax Relief Program is known, reduces the taxes paid by property owners and, more recently, provides an annual rebate. State lawmakers, clever self-promoters that they are, thought it would be a fine thing for those checks to be delivered just before Election Day in the fall, reminding voters of what good friends they have in Albany.

It isn’t working out that way. Many checks are late, including some for seniors who badly need the infusion of cash. Albany, whose spendthrift habits created the need for the STAR program, can’t produce the software needed to identify qualifying homeowners and promptly produce the checks.

Republicans in the Legislature are having a field day, slamming the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, for – in the words of Assemblyman Raymond Walter, R-Amherst – “pure incompetence.” It’s hard to argue the point, though it’s also fair to say that the Legislature should have ensured the program it wanted for its own selfish interests could be readily implemented. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

But forget blame, for the moment. Albany made a promise to the state’s overburdened taxpayers. It would send them a check to help defray their school taxes and, now, five months after property owners were supposed to receive their checks, thousands are still without. The state needs to fix this – now.

Lacking the necessary computer muscle, the state tax department is manually verifying who qualifies for a check. It’s an absurd solution in the second decade of the 21st century, but that’s the way it is in Albany. If the state needs to hire temporary workers to sift through the backlog, then it should do that.

And it should pay interest to taxpayers who are still awaiting their checks, just as it does for delays in sending out income tax refunds.

Even more important, Albany needs to figure out why it can’t figure things out. Why wasn’t it obvious to someone – in the tax department, in the governor’s office, in the Legislature – that state government lacked the ability to process this information efficiently? Is no one in charge of that, or do legislators and others engage in magical thinking – that simply because they decide upon something, it has to happen? In this case, they might just as well have ordered fish to sing.

The state also needs to review its systems – for both its technology and its record-keeping. It is unthinkable that the state cannot easily identify property taxpayers eligible for a rebate program. And if it can’t do that, what other idiocies await – in law enforcement or health care or education or the environment?

This is a wake-up call, and one with real victims. How many people still without their check had already planned on how to use it? How many are unable to afford basics because Albany didn’t do what it promised?

Get the checks out. Perhaps Walter can take on the task of ferreting out the problems and proposing solutions that go beyond the tax snafu to preventing additional problems. It would be a real service.

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