NY lawmakers near deal on sales tax, Mario Cuomo Bridge

ALBANY - New York lawmakers were working toward an agreement Wednesday night that would extend current sales-tax rates for local governments for three years and rename the Tappan Zee Bridge for the late Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Other parts of the package included a $55 million for flood-damage relief on Lake Ontario, money to fund full-day kindergarten for some upstate schools that do not have it and a tax deal to keep open Vernon Downs, the central New York racino that is threatening to close.

Assembly Democrats outlined the tentative agreement and were hopeful it could all be put into bill form and voted on late Wednesday.

"We’re still waiting for the bills to advance, but I think it’s coming together," said Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski, D-New City, Rockland County.

But Senate Republicans already left for the day and had not signaled whether they would also approve the bills, while Gov. Andrew Cuomo had not yet detailed the measures.

Still, Assembly Democrats emerged from a closed-door meeting confident that a deal was at hand after a lengthy day where an impasse seemed probable.

The governor summoned the Legislature back to Albany on Wednesday -- a week after the annual legislative session ended -- in hopes of breaking a stalemate over mayoral control of New York City schools, which is set to expire at the end of the month.

The agreement, if passed by the Assembly and Senate and signed by Cuomo, would include a two-year extension of mayoral control.

Dozens of local tax "extenders," normally routine bills that allow local governments to collect certain tax revenue, are set to expire later this year, and legislators pressed for the sales-tax bills to be approved as part of the special session.

Legislative leaders made frequent trips between Cuomo's office and their own private conference rooms Wednesday, hoping to reach a deal that would settle those issues and several others, including a $90 million flood-relief package for Lake Ontario victims that the governor is seeking changes to.

The final flood aid may be $55 million, with more money available if needed.

The younger Cuomo has been pressing for the $4 billion new Tappan Zee Bridge to be named for his late father and three-term governor. One span of the bridge is set to open later this year.

The Senate passed the bill last week before the regularly scheduled session ended. The Assembly didn't do so, though, but were poised to pass the bill as part of the latest agreement.

So the bridge's name would switch from "The Governor Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge" to "The Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge."

The tax extenders are of crucial importance for local governments, particularly counties, as they craft their budgets for the coming year.

Counties, for example, need the state Legislature's permission to charge more than 3 percent for their share of sales tax. Most counties charge 4 percent, and lawmakers have taken up their requests every two years. Most of those extenders expire in November.

The extra sales-tax revenue is worth an estimated $1.8 billion to counties next year, according to the state Association of Counties. Monroe County, for example, would face an $83 million gap without it, according to County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo.

The extenders also apply to cities that charge a sales tax, including Yonkers, as well as a variety of other local taxes at the city, town and village level.

"It is unfortunate that session ended in Albany without passing the sales tax extension for counties which has been in place for many years," Dinolfo said in a statement.

Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats went into closed-door conferences Wednesday afternoon to discuss the legislative agenda for the day. Those meetings lasted into Wednesday evenings, interrupted by a lunch break and frequent trips by legislative leaders to Cuomo's office.

Senators said they want the sales-tax extenders approved as part of the day's session.

"It makes common sense. It allows these counties to go in and start their budgeting process and knowing that they don’t have to wait until the 11 ½ hour to do this," said Sen. Terrence Murphy, R-Yorktown.

The Association of Counties, which represents the state's 57 counties and New York City, is urging the Assembly to pass a bill that would give counties permanent authority to charge their current sales-tax rates. The bill was originally proposed by Cuomo, and the Senate approved it last week.

The battle over the sales-tax extenders has been wrapped up in the Legislature's stalemate over mayoral control of schools.

The Democrat-led Assembly approved a bill earlier this year that tied an extension of mayoral control to the various, soon-to-expire tax extenders for governments in other parts of the state.

The Republican-led Senate, meanwhile, has been reluctant to extend mayoral control without expanding charter schools in the city, which many Assembly Democrats oppose. The Senate approved the local tax extenders in standalone bills.

Further complicating the local tax standoff is Republican efforts to approve federal health care reform.

A measure included in the Senate and House health care bills would shift $2.3 billion in annual Medicaid costs from New York's counties to the state. If approved, Cuomo and lawmakers may eye giving the state a larger share of sales tax to make up the difference.

As it stands, the state sales tax is 4 percent, which is on top of what counties charge.

But Republicans balked at any talk of tying counties' sales-tax revenue to a potential cut to the state's coffers from Medicaid.

Sen. Thomas O'Mara, R-Big Flats, Chemung County, said the state could find the $2.3 billion to alleviate the cost on counties, saying it wouldn't take effect until 2020.

"I think in a $160 billion (state) budget, we can find that leeway to do it and get that burden off the property taxpayers," O'Mara said.

 

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