State of the State Cuomo

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-Smithtown, talks to reporters after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his State of the State address at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

Hans Pennink

State Senate Republicans unveiled a plan Tuesday to eliminate school property taxes for New York seniors over the next decade. 

The proposal was mentioned in the conference's 2018 legislative agenda released Tuesday. Republicans want to make the property tax cap permanent, increase property tax rebate checks and a new freeze on school property taxes for seniors at current levels. 

The new freeze would be a precursor to eliminating school property taxes for seniors over the next 10 years. 

"From the seniors being forced to choose between paying their property taxes or medical bills, to the harried, hardworking parents who must juggle two or three jobs to stay afloat, to every cash-strapped person in between, they are our priority," said state Sen. Catharine Young, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. 

The state has programs in place to reduce the property tax burden for seniors. The Enhanced STAR program provides an exemption for seniors ages 65 and older with incomes of $86,000 or less. The benefit applies to the first $66,800 of the value of a home, according to the state Department of Taxation and Finance. 

Municipalities also have the option of providing a senior citizens exemption on property taxes. Local governments and school districts can reduce the assessment of a senior-owned home by up to 50 percent. Seniors are eligible if their incomes are no more than $29,000 a year. 

Smaller exemptions can be granted for seniors whose annual incomes exceed $29,000. 

But the Senate Republicans' plan would go further by completing eliminating school property taxes for seniors. 

Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate majority, said the proposal would save $48 million statewide. Seniors who are at least 70 years and are eligible for the enhanced STAR program would have their school taxes eliminated. 

Lisa Green, business manager at the Auburn Enlarged City School District, said she is not opposed to helping seniors. One question she posed is whether the state would make up for the lost school property tax revenue, which is a major source of funding for districts across New York. 

"If that's the case, then I don't think we would have any issue with it," she said. 

Reif said the state would provide funding to ensure schools don't lose revenue as a result of the change. 

The Senate Republicans' plan was criticized by E.J. McMahon, research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany-based think tank. 

McMahon offered a harsh assessment of the possible elimination of school property taxes for seniors. He said it could be viewed as "a perverse way of stemming the out-migration tide by bribing young homeowners to hang around in New York until they're old enough to pay nothing. Or bribing seniors to come back to New York." 

He added, "Either way, it's unfair to anyone else — and it's by no means fair to assume that couples with an income of $86,000 a year, many living in a fully paid-off house, are uniformly unable to pay their property taxes."

The proposal faces an uncertain fate in the state Legislature. While Republicans hold the majority in the state Senate, the Democrats are in control of the state Assembly. And it would have to receive the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. 

The state Senate acted on parts of its 2018 agenda Tuesday. The GOP-led chamber passed bills to make the property tax cap permanent and codify a state spending cap into law. 

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