Taxes seen as key issue in race between Andrew Cuomo, Rob Astorino

Rob Astorino will seek to unseat Democratic Gov. Rob Astorino will seek to unseat Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in November's election. Photo Credit: AP/ Mike Groll

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ALBANY -- For New Yorkers voting with their wallets this fall for governor, Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Republican Rob Astorino agree on one thing: Taxes are out of control.

But how much they did to control taxes after their respective four years in office is a critical question for voters in the prime suburban battleground dominated by Long Island.

State and county records show Astorino, the Westchester County executive, held the line on the property taxes during his first term. Records show that the amount the county raised by taxes -- $548 million -- was unchanged the past three years, and county spending declined from $1.76 billion in 2011 to $1.73 billion this year.

Meanwhile, state spending increased from $88.3 billion in 2011 to $90.6 billion this year, which is a smaller rise than most past years. Cuomo also promised this year to phase out several corporate and bank taxes and end an income tax on manufacturers because of a surplus he projects for the coming years. He also enacted a phaseout of the estate tax.

Cuomo is offering a temporary property tax "freeze" this election year, if local governments and schools also commit to long-term cost savings. The state would use $1 billion to subsidize property tax increases up to 2 percent, but taxpayers in taxing districts within counties such as Westchester, which kept spending at less than 2 percent, would get a cut.

The "freeze" -- which will be phased in over coming years -- would save a married couple making $100,000 about $400; a married couple making $50,000 would see a $200 break. In addition, families with at least one child and earning $40,000 to $300,000 will get a $350 tax "rebate" check before the November election.

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In his first three years, Cuomo extended an income tax surcharge and a utility tax, which he had promised to let expire as a candidate in 2010, adding up to more than $2 billion a year in revenue to balance state budgets. But he extended the income tax surcharge at a slightly lower rate days before it would have expired and called it a tax cut.

 

Taxes still among highest

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Although the campaign rhetoric is appealing to voters -- Cuomo said as a candidate in 2010 state taxes were "out of control" and candidate Astorino in 2009 called county taxes "madness" -- records show each, at best, only stemmed the growth in taxes, which remain among the highest in the nation.

"By his own definition, Governor Cuomo has increased taxes, there's no question about it," said E.J. McMahon, president of the fiscally conservative Empire Center for Public Policy, referring to the income tax surcharge and utility tax.

But McMahon said Cuomo deserves credit for reducing local property taxes by requiring counties, cities, towns, villages and school districts to reduce spending increases to 2 percent, with some exceptions.

Astorino kept spending and taxes down, but made no drastic cuts in what is still the highest county tax in the nation, McMahon said.

In Westchester County, the average residential property tax bill was $12,717 -- three and four times many average upstate bills, according to 2012 records with the State Real Property Tax Office. That average total property tax bill in Westchester County increased $79 over the previous year. But the county government portion of the bill under Astorino's control was essentially flat.

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"His record isn't exceptional, but on the other hand, it's what he says it is," McMahon said.

 

Comparing tax messagesAlthough few New Yorkers know Astorino's tax record, "when they do, they won't be unimpressed by what he's tried to do with Westchester, which is a place Long Islanders can identify with," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

"But Cuomo also has a very powerful narrative for suburban voters who are obsessed with taxes and it's all the more so because it's a little counterintuitive," Levy said. "You don't expect a Democrat running on a tax record. So Cuomo may get more credit than Astorino for what he did in Westchester, even though there may not be a lot of daylight between them."

Cuomo's tax message includes a modest cut for the middle class while increasing taxes on the state's tiny, wealthiest 1 percent, Levy said. "It's good politics," he said.

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Cuomo's 2% tax cap praised

Brian Sampson of the Unshackle Upstate business group agreed with McMahon that Cuomo's greatest triumph is forcing a 2 percent cap on the growth in local property taxes.

"We needed a vehicle to start to suppress the rate of increases," he said. "But once you did the cap, you needed to give local governments the tools to keep their costs down. And that's where we feel there has been a failure."

Sampson referred to Cuomo's promise as a candidate in 2010 to eliminate state-mandated programs on schools and local governments so they could afford the 2 percent cap. Many school and local government officials say too few mandates -- many protected by influential unions in Albany -- were touched.

He dismissed Cuomo's property tax freeze as a "gimmick," because taxes will still go up and the state subsidy will just mask them for a year or two.

Sampson said Wall Street banks and corporations will receive most of Cuomo's promised tax cuts, "but what have you done for the small business?"

In Manhattan, New York's economic engine and target of many of Cuomo's biggest tax initiatives, the governor's tax policy is lauded.

"From our perspective, the governor has been a champion for controlling spending and trying to keep tax increases to a minimum," said Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit organization of the city's business leaders.

She said the business group acknowledges the need for the state to also invest in education, transportation, health care and other services, not just cut taxes.

"Generally the business community has been happy with Governor Cuomo when it comes to his fiscal policies," Wylde said.

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