Lawmakers Defend Tax Increases, Critics Say Process Was Too Secretive

Dec 7, 2011

One day after Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders announced major changes in the state’s tax code, lawmakers, who are voting on the measure, are busy portraying the deal in the best possible light.

Senators and Assemblymembers were set to vote on bills that would raise rates on New Yorkers earning more than $2 million dollars a year for the next three years, but would slightly lower the tax rates for the middle class permanently.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who pledged repeatedly this year not to vote to raise taxes on anyone, even the rich, chose to focus on the middle class tax cuts, when confronted by reporters before a closed door party conference.

“We’re cutting taxes, in my opinion,” Skelos said.

Senator Skelos tried to blame the Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, who has openly advocated for taxing millionaires at a higher rate, for the inclusion of the higher tax rates on the wealthy in the package.

“Maybe Shelly Silver is speaker is raising taxes, but we’re cutting taxes,” Skelos said.

Senate Republicans, however, must vote for the entire bill, which does include the three year, temporary higher tax bracket for the 30,000 or so who earn more than $2 million dollars in the state. But Skelos points out that the tax rates on the rich could have been even higher. The current temporary income tax surcharge on wealthier New Yorkers, which expires at the end of the month, was nearly 8.97%, while the new tax surcharge, for the richest  residents is .15% less, at 8. 82%.  However, until Tuesday’s agreement to change the tax code, that temporary tax was going away, and the top income earners would have been paying a tax rate of just 6.85%.

The Senate Leader concedes that for those top earners the rates are “not going down as far as they thought”, but he points out that major business groups, who were against taxing the rich all year, are not complaining about the tax code changes.

There is one group that is unhappy with the tax code changes- Assembly Republicans, who are in the minority in that house.

Minority Leader Brian Kolb says he’s disappointed with the deal.

“I disagree with raising taxes on anyone in a fragile economy,” said Kolb, who accused proponents of the package as engaging in “class warfare”.  

The Minority Leader says even former President Bill Clinton, a leading democrat, is against all income tax increases right now. And, as Kolb points out, until very recently Governor Andrew Cuomo also opposed raising any type of taxes whatsoever. Cuomo brokered the tax code change deal.

Kolb says more effort should have been made to cut spending, instead of raising taxes.

Assemblyman Kolb says he’s also annoyed that minority party lawmakers were completely left out of the negotiations, as were nearly all rank and file lawmakers.

“This being rushed through in less than a 24 or 48 period is a disservice to all New Yorkers,” said Kolb, who says the bills “should have a fair vetting” .

Barbara Bartoletti, with the government reform advocacy group the League of Women Voters, agrees that the process was too secretive.

“Whether you agree with it or not, it’s a major public policy change,” Bartoletti said.

And, she says it should not be put on the floor for a vote before even many legislators have a chance to read it.

Assembly Speaker Silver, when asked if the negotiations were too secretive responded with some asperity.

“I think  there’s been open debate for about a year and a half now on what we’ve put forth as a millionaire’s tax,” said Silver. “There have been no secrets about it.”  

Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters says the Speaker is right, up to a point.

“There’ve been protests about the millionaires’ tax, both pro and con,” Bartoletti said. “But no actual hearings on what might be in this tax policy change.”

The legislation does not only include changes to the tax code, it also would reverse a long standing state policy on gambling, by asking lawmakers to take steps to amend the state’s constitutional prohibition against non-Indian gaming. It also includes a new fund to repair the state’s decaying roads and bridges.