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From “City & State”: Samuels to Cuomo: Cover Medicaid to Lower Property Taxes

Bill Samuels, founder of the liberal policy group EffectiveNY, called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to champion a property tax relief proposal floated by Mario Cuomo, the executive’s late father.

At an event hosted by City & State Tuesday, Samuels said the state has spent decades resisting requests that it assume a larger share of Medicaid funding and, consequently, has saddled local municipalities with an outsize burden.

Samuels said a 1967 constitutional convention proposed the state pay for Medicaid costs not handled by the federal government and that the recently deceased former Gov. Mario Cuomo floated a similar idea in the late 1990s, but it never proved politically palatable.

“The goal isn’t just to lower the taxes,” Samuels said. “The goal is to take the shackles off our county executives, to take off the unfair tax burden on our working families and homeowner, and most importantly, create a competitive business environment.”

He suggested Gov. Andrew Cuomo use $733 million in the upcoming state budget to relieve counties outside New York City of around a third of their total estimated $2.2 billion property tax burden and assume the remainder of the municipalities’ collective burden over the next two years.

Currently, the federal government pays for about half of Medicaid in New York and the state government covers 35 percent and passes another 15 percent onto the counties, according to EffectiveNY.

Samuels said all other states bankroll a larger portion of Medicaid.

“Forget this 2 percent tax cap,” Samuels said of the current policy, which requires at least 60 percent of voters to approve upstate local governments’ budgets if they rely raising the property tax revenue of more than 2 percent or the rate of inflation. “Overall, New York State doing what 49 other states do, doing what’s right, we reduce county property taxes by 49 percent.”

Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In recent years, his administration has had the state assume increases in Medicaid costs and offered grants and assistance for municipalities and school districts that work with the Financial Restructing Board for Local Government.

Local elected leaders at the City & State conference echoed Samuels’ complaints that the state required municipalities to provide health and social services, tasked them with complying with the 2 percent property tax cap and failed to throw more weight behind them in union contract and pension negotiations.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner said 80 percent of the surrounding Onondaga County tax levy went to Medicaid. She said Syracuse took pension negotiations to binding arbitration, which put the final financial decision out of the city’s hands, and the remaining budget forced her to close a fire house, shut senior centers and trim other services constituents expect.

“As long as the discussion doesn’t focus on, ‘Let’s solve the problem,’ but instead focuses on, ‘Well, let’s win the media cycle of the day by casting blame or throwing it on other people,’ we’re still going to be in this position,” she said. “We feel we have very little control.”

E.J. McMahon, president of the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy Inc., said finding $2 billion in the state’s budget to cover more Medicaid costs would likely be much more difficult than Samuels suggested.

“If this was easy, it would have been done,” McMahon said. “If we could really lift all of the state-mandated health services and welfare services and social services off the backs of counties, if we did a thorough enough job of it, we may not need counties.”

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