New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s embrace of a “no new taxes” agenda boosted the crossover appeal that gave him a landslide victory in 2010 and helped keep his approval ratings high through most of his first term. In his reelection campaign, Cuomo boasts that he has reduced taxes to their lowest level in decades. All three of the New York governors to seek at least a second term since 1978—Democrats Hugh Carey (1975–82) and Mario Cuomo (1983–94) and Republican George Pataki (1995–2006)—also ran for reelection as tax cutters, though all three did more to reduce state taxes than Andrew Cuomo has done, at least so far.
By broad measures, New York’s state and local tax burden remains the nation’s heaviest. Despite several waves of tax cutting in Albany, total taxes in New York remained higher in 2011 than they were 30 years earlier, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation. The state’s top personal income-tax rate of 8.82 percent is the eighth-highest in the country and third-highest among large, industrial states that have such taxes. New York City residents pay an additional local income tax that brings the top rate for city residents to 13.1 percent, the second-highest in the nation. New York’s average combined state and local sales-tax charge of 8.47 percent is the highest in the Northeast—all five bordering states have average sales-tax rates below 7 percent—and the nation’s seventh-highest overall.
New York’s local property taxes are rivaled only by New Jersey’s. New York City piles most of the tax burden on commercial, industrial, and multifamily properties, going easier on owner-occupied homes. Outside the city, however, taxes on residential and commercial properties are extraordinarily high, by national standards. New Yorkers also pay some of the country’s highest mortgage taxes and property-transfer taxes.
Corporate taxation is the only category in which New York does not rank at or near the top of the list. At the start of this year, 22 states—including neighboring Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania—had higher top corporate income-tax rates than New York’s 7.1 percent. However, a state-imposed mass-transit surcharge boosts the rate to 8.3 percent throughout the 12-county New York City metropolitan region, where employers also pay a 0.34 percent payroll tax. New York City compounds the burden with its own levy, effectively doubling the total corporate tax for businesses in the state’s economic heart.
“This state has no future if it’s going to be the tax capital of the nation,” Cuomo has said. But the governor spent most of his first term redistributing New York’s taxes rather than reducing them. In December 2011, going against an earlier promise, Cuomo extended nearly all of a temporary “millionaire’s tax” hike set to expire at the end of that year. The governor used some of the revenue to finance equally temporary rate cuts and credits for middle-class New Yorkers, buttressing his claim that he had cut personal income-tax rates. The net effect of all state measures during the past five years, however, has been to boost New York’s fiscal 2015 tax collections by at least $2 billion per year above the 2008 level—one of the largest and most enduring tax increases in any state since the start of the Great Recession.
It wasn’t until this year, with his fourth budget, that Cuomo put through the first real tax cuts of his tenure, including combining the state bank tax with the corporation-franchise tax and cutting corporate rates to 6.5 percent, starting in 2016. The state eliminated the corporate tax entirely for manufacturing firms, an effective political move but one with limited budget impact, since many manufacturers were already paying minimal state taxes, thanks to a preferential lower rate and generous investment-tax credits. The Tax Foundation said that the corporate tax changes would be enough to boost New York from 50th to 48th in the foundation’s annual business-tax climate ranking.
This year, Cuomo also initiated a phaseout of the estate tax on assets worth less than the federal tax threshold—currently $5.3 million and indexed to rise annually with inflation. The reform will end the “death tax” for 90 percent of estates previously subject to it. By 2019, New York’s estate-tax threshold will match the federal one. New York’s wealthiest residents, though, will still see no relief, unless they move out.
Cuomo’s most significant step to reduce New York’s tax burden is a property-tax cap that limits annual increases in local tax levy to the lesser of 2 percent or the rate of inflation. The cap—which doesn’t apply to New York City—has significantly reduced the rate of growth in school-tax levies, which account for more than half the suburban and rural property-tax burden throughout the state. Cuomo got the property-tax cap through the Democratic state assembly by linking it to his approval of the law extending New York City’s rent regulations for four years. The property-tax cap is set to expire in 2016, but, according to the bill’s wording, it may remain in effect “only so long as” the rent law, due to expire in June 2015, is also extended. Left in place, the cap should make a real difference, as a similar one has in Massachusetts. But given opposition from public-employee unions and the expiration language, its permanence can’t be taken for granted.
Corporate tax cuts aside, Cuomo’s strategy for boosting New York’s economic competitiveness is START-UP NY, his plan to create dozens of micro-enterprise zones on or near college campuses, where new or relocated out-of-state businesses can operate free of state taxes for up to ten years. But the governor’s office will control the process and handpick beneficiaries, and the START-UP zones are too small and scattered to make much of an impact. The program’s arbitrariness has sparked resentment among longtime state businesspeople, such as Roger Hannay, whose family-owned firm makes industrial and commercial hose and cable reels in rural Albany County. “We’ve been paying taxes for 81 years, and now somebody can breeze into town and have no taxes for 10 years,” Hannay told the Albany Business Review.
Cuomo has come up with two more temporary tax gimmicks: a $350 income-tax credit for families with a child under 17, and a tax credit (misleadingly touted as a “property-tax freeze”) for homeowners in jurisdictions that stay under their property-tax caps over the next two years. Checks from Albany for these credits will arrive in voters’ mailboxes shortly before the November 4 state elections.
It will take years to reduce New York’s overall tax burden in a meaningful way, but some obvious starting points exist. Of all the state’s onerous levies, the personal income tax has the most adverse effect on wealth creation and economic growth. Serious reform would reduce (permanently) middle-class rates, roll back the higher tax on million-dollar earners, and automatically adjust tax brackets for inflation. These changes can be financed in part by closing some of the $1.7 billion in business-tax credits now cluttering the code, including up to $420 million in annual giveaways to film and TV producers. New York also should kill what’s left of its estate tax and make permanent its property-tax cap.
The Republican gubernatorial candidate, Westchester County executive Rob Astorino, has embraced most of these goals. Cuomo, for now, is more intent on hyping what he’s already done while avoiding major commitments for a hoped-for second term. When it comes to taxes, the winner will have his work cut out for him.
Photo by James Morris