It is widely understood that New York state is a high-tax state.
New York state citizens are acutely aware of this fact. It is hardly surprising then that the governor, being the politician that he is, has appointed not one, but two, commissions to examine how to reform New York’s tax system.
The first commission he appointed, with the Orwellian name, “New York State Tax Reform and Fairness Commission,” released its report last month. Notwithstanding its name, the report contains some good ideas on how New York should reform its tax structure.
The report begins by acknowledging we are a high-tax state. In the 2012-13 fiscal year, state and local governments levied about $146 billion in taxes.
Of that $146 billion, $64 billion is attributable to state taxes and the remaining $82 billion came from local tax collections.
Of the $82 billion raised in local taxes, $49 billion was raised through property taxes.
Although the report raises the issue of local taxes, the majority of its suggested changes deal with reforming our state’s tax system, not our local tax systems.
First, the report acknowledges the state’s use and sales tax system is antiquated and needs to be modernized. I agree with this conclusion.
At the very least, we need to simplify the system. I have heard from many small businesses about how difficult it is for them to understand exactly on what they need to collect sales tax.
For example, if you sell bagels, you do not charge sales tax on plain bagels, but if you toast it, slice it and put butter on it, then you must charge sales tax.
There are all sorts of inane examples along these lines that businesses encounter on a regular basis. The report states the structure is “unduly complex” and makes “voluntary compliance more difficult, increasing the cost of doing business in the state and creates financial risk for vendors who ‘get it wrong’ and adds to the government’s tax administration costs.”
If nothing else, in the upcoming legislative session, we should make revenue neutral changes to our sales tax system to take out much of the complexity that has arisen over the years.
Second, the report also acknowledges our state’s estate tax has not kept pace with changes made to federal estate tax laws.
As characteristic of our high-tax reputation, New York is one of only 17 states that has an estate tax. Moreover, there are only two states that have estate tax exemption amounts lower than New York’s $1 million amount.
I was pleased the report notes New York’s estate tax may be a factor in taxpayer migration from New York to states without an estate tax.
In Central New York, we have seen many change their residency to Florida (a state without an estate tax) in effort to avoid NY’s estate tax.
It is hard enough competing with Florida on the basis of the weather. We shouldn’t also be giving people an economic incentive to move there.
To try to alleviate this problem, the commission recommends in its report to raise New York’s exemption from $1 million to $3 million.
This is a start. However, I would rather see us eliminate our estate tax entirely or, at the very least, match the exemption amount to the federal amount which is $5.25 million.
Third, the commission recommends an accelerated phase out of the 18-a surcharge. This surcharge is a 2 percent assessment on electric, gas, water and steam utilities.
Like all taxes on businesses, they are passed on to the consumers. This assessment is no different. It places an additional burden on New York families and businesses because we already pay high utility bills notwithstanding our taxes.
In last year’s budget, the legislature and governor agreed to phase out this charge over a three-and-a-half-year period. As mentioned, the commission recommends phasing this out more quickly because it has such a detrimental effect, particularly on businesses.
I agree and indeed sponsor legislation to fully repeal this surcharge.
The commission also recommends many other changes to our state’s tax code. Some of its other recommendations I agree with, some I do not.
However, I am pleased at least there is some focus being brought to what is a primary economic problem in our state.
As mentioned above, the governor also has appointed a second commission to look at our state’s tax system.
Apparently, this second commission is supposed to focus on coming up with proposals to relieve New Yorkers from our high property tax burden.
I look forward to seeing its proposals and hope that they will be broad based.
Solutions will have to get at the reasons why we have high property taxes in this state and not simply shift the burden of our taxes from one group of citizens to another.
I will provide an update once their report becomes available.
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