A Buffalo Stampede

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So who owns the Buffalo Bills?

The answer is Ralph Wilson. But one would get the feeling that this was a government-run entity with recent events.

As you no doubt have heard, Wilson says that the new NFL collective bargaining agreement jeopardizes the financial survival of the Bills and other small market football teams. Wilson now appears to be willing to consider moving the franchise, something he previously said he would never do. And it’s because of the sharing arrangement. So bad is the situation, said Wilson, that he needs help.

He needs political help. And what does he get?

A Buffalo stampede that would do Willis McGahee proud. Rep. Tom Reynolds wrote a letter that took up Wilson’s cause and sent it to 94 other congressional representatives. Rep. Brian Higgins wants a congressional hearing about the Bills plight. State Sen George Maziarz put a petition on his website… a petition directed to "Commissioner Tagliabue" (as in Paul Tagliabue). A petition that talks about the hardworking western New Yorkers who will "roll up our sleeves" to keep the Bills in town. "I support the Buffalo Bills," the petition ends. Erie County Executive Joel Giambra weighs in.  Gubernatorial candidate Bill Weld says that he will go "helmet to helmet" to make sure that we don’t get "sacked" by a Bills departure. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer does a press conference with Wilson. Then he has a pow-wow with Paul Tagliabue.

How quickly the elected officials line up. And how tough they talk. They will fight to keep an NFL franchise from leaving the area. After all we in upstate New York couldn’t possibly survive the loss of an NFL franchise. Sure there are other problems –  the struggles of upstate cities to pay for services… the inability to attract jobs upstate… the crushing taxes and government spending burdens for local governments and taxpayers… the performance of schools. But come on, this is the Buffalo Bills.

Sure… some would argue that the elected officials are simply jumping on a bandwagon that might get easy press attention and give them easy praise from the electorate. They might say that it’s far simpler to back the Bills than, say, put effort into Medicaid reform or workers compensation changes.

Why with that kind of reaction from the public officials, you would think that this was a publicly-owned football team. But it’s not. It’s Ralph Wilson’s team.

Wilson tells the press that he doesn’t want public money for a new stadium – or to make up what he says are going to be revenue shortfalls. That’s good. Because the last time a threat of moving was voiced by the privately-owned Buffalo Bills… the state coughed up $96 million improve the county-owned stadium that bears his name.

The claim of losses by the Bills is just that – a claim. It’s not like the team cracks open the books for public scrutiny. They aren’t publicly-owned. Not that they aren’t in a tough position (as Leo Roth of the Democrat and Chronicle points out nicely in his piece

This whole thing winds up being quite a statement about what it is that we value. If this were a manufacturing firm – it would not get nearly this kind of attention from the public… it would not receive these kinds of public displays by elected officials. And a few years back… the last time the team complained about its survival in Western New York… the state gave it millions to refurbish the stadium in Orchard Park. You don’t see that every day either.

The investment isn’t just lung power from fans on a fall Sunday. It appears to be tax money… and the time of our regional and statewide lawmakers.

But remember who owns the team – and who would gain from any sales of the team in the end.

Musings on a Sales Tax Hike: Duffy’s Sales Tax Advantage

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Rochester Mayor Bob Duffy has taken his first turn at commenting on the sales tax hike proposal by County Executive Maggie Brooks. And he basically gave it a pan.

Duffy said that raising taxes would be his last resort… implying that the county and Brooks haven’t met the threshold for hitting the "last resort."

This is interesting coming from a man who about a month or so ago went to Albany and pleaded for his "fair share" of money from New York State in the form of aid. He used a per-capita calculation to show that Rochester gets less in direct state aid than Buffalo, Yonkers and Syracuse… the other big cities outside of the Big Apple. As if he wasn’t asking for more taxes – state taxes.

But it gets you to thinking about this as well… Rochester gets far more in "aid" from the sales tax than those other cities. Just check out page 14 of State Comptroller Alan Hevesi’s report on sales taxes in New York State. Look at what cities got from the sales tax in 2004:
Buffalo: $60.7 million
Yonkers: $53.8 million
Syracuse: $49.3 million
Rochester: $86.5 million

Now, I’m not sure what population measure the city used to derive their per capita comparison when it comes to state aid… (although it showed Rochester getting less than the other cities). But let’s use the census number for population and the above sales tax take:
Buffalo: $207
Yonkers: $275
Syracuse: $335
Rochester: $394

Why I would expect Buffalo’s Mayor Byron Brown to be storming the state capitol asking for parity any day now. After all, it is the state legislature that enacted the sharing arrangement for sales tax in Monroe County. And sales taxes on the local level must be approved by state lawmakers.

We all know why this is the case – because (as the Hevesi report showed again) Monroe County’s sharing arrangement is, by far, the most generous to county municipalities.

We should note that Duffy complains about the Brooks plan even as it provides more in sales tax money down the line. Interesting. And you might want to clip this and save the numbers above. Should the city want to negotiate with the Brooks administration – and want more… we all should refer to the figures.

Musings on a Sales Tax Hike: What’s With the Doomsday Cuts?

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The dire choices presented by Brooks had she opted to cut services. She told the assembled in the County Office Building last Thursday that to cut the programs necessary to balance the books would have been… well, draconian. She talked about ending the road patrol service. She talked about closing the zoo… closing the parks. (Check here for her complete list – it’s on page 3)

This is as if she couldn’t scale back on some or all of these programs. Why end them? Why give us the all or nothing scenario? That is, of course, about making a point using drastic means.

Brooks told us that her administration has done all it could to make cuts. The question is… does the electorate really believe this?

Musings on a Sales Tax Hike: Brooks Hatred for Taxes

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It was interesting to watch County Executive Maggie Brooks try and maintain her image as a conservative on taxes while calling for this increase. At one point during the question and answer session – she said something even more amusing – that she hated taxes… hated them. As if she hated all taxes.

Going over the top is a tried and true method of getting the basic point home (which was that she hates increasing taxes). And maybe her line was a subtle misstatement. But it makes you laugh just the same – this notion of "hating taxes."

Government doesn’t exist but for the raising of taxes. Of course, taxation is a relative way for the collective being served to pay for services that they benefit from. Hating all taxes would mean hating the funds that pay for garbage collection, sewer pipe repairs, the cop on the beat or the program that pays for Aunt Jenny to get long term nursing care.

That’s not to say that government shouldn’t grapple with how much it’s collecting and how much it’s spending. And, frankly, in New York State… that argument about the basic work of government and how much it should collect to pay for it has long stalled out. That gets me to my next thought…

Musings on a Sales Tax Hike: The Intercept Prod

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The sales tax intercept that we’ve been writing about in this space has been tabbed by County Executive Maggie Brooks. She called it a gift from Albany, the way that state government has given county governments a solution to the Medicaid cost crunch.

The other way to view this is that the intercept may be the way to get state government to finally look at the Medicaid cost.

State lawmakers have found it easy to expand Medicaid because a) it means getting more federal aid from the match that the feds pay in Medicaid and b) because the local counties share the cost. No direct pain, no need to change. Maybe the state will finally look at cost cutting for Medicaid if they take more of it on.

Wouldn’t that be a novel approach by government – cost cutting.

More From Tom Suozzi

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If you caught WXXI’s Need to Know program on April 14 at 9 p.m. you saw part of our interview with Tom Suozzi, the outsider running for the Democratic nomination, and current Nassau County Executive.

If you want to hear more from Suozzi click right here for a continuation of our conversation with the man who wants to challenge Eliot Spitzer for the Democratic nomination.

During the talk, Suozzi shoves Medicaid fraud in his rival’s face. "Eliot Spitzer has not made a priority of going after Medicaid fraud," he said in WXXI’s studios.

Suozzi again pushed his plan for finding $5 billion in savings from the state budget. Part of that plan goes right at unions in the state – cutting the workforce by 10 percent. You can see the results of one Suozzi squabble with a union here. You should also click here to see how Suozzi blames the clash with the Nassau PBA partly on Spitzer.

Suozzi also says state spending is a problem but won’t freeze it. And listen for when he talks about
alienating top leaders in Albany.

Accepting the Gift

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The Maggie Brooks budget solution has just a hint of Joel Giambra and Erie County, doesn’t it?

That sales tax hike comes as a last resort, said Brooks during her Thursday announcement. It’s the only way to cover up the $102 million county budget gap, she said.

So you must recall that in late 2004, Erie County Executive Joel Giambra proposed a penny hike in the sales tax as a way to close up Erie County’s budget hole. (This space in its former home called it "The Ghost of Erie County"). That initial sales tax increase was rejected. But in January 2006, Erie County leaders and the state finally bought into a 3/4 quarters of a penny hike. That’s what Brooks proposes to add on to Monroe County’s sales tax.

Of course, timing is everything.

When Giambra made his call, he came armed with a doomsday budget scenario – give me a sales tax hike or you get massive cuts. They call it the red-green budget debate. This sparked quite a backlash.

And he didn’t have "the gift."

That’s what Brooks called the Albany-created swap known as the sales tax intercept. The program where counties can give away some of their sales tax money in exchange for giving away the requirement to pay into Medicaid. She hardly sounded like a kid at Christmas when this idea for accepting the trade was first announced n March, remember?. But, coupled with the sales tax hike that will make the city, the towns, villages and school districts whole, the intercept is a box wrapped with a bow.

No such present for Giambra back then. Just loads of criticism.

Much of that criticism centered around the fact that when Giambra first came into office, the Erie County Executive slashed property taxes by some 30 percent.

But here’s an interesting thing. Monroe County also cut property taxes in the mid to late 1990s and into the early years of 2000. At least if you take it from the view that County Executive Brooks now holds.

Brooks’ predecessor often said he froze the property tax. But Jack Doyle meant the total amount of property taxes collected. Brooks has changed that definition. She, too, says she holds the line on taxes. But she means the property tax rate. This may sound esoteric. But it’s important.

Using the Brooks method of viewing the property tax, Doyle actually cut taxes by roughly 8 percent from the time he took over to the time he left. Now that reduction isn’t the same size as Giambra’s. But it’s interesting how a definition of how to measure property tax growth can, well, alleviate criticism.

I mean, imagine if Democrats started going after Brooks and Doyle for cutting property taxes and digging some of that fiscal hole themselves.

And it is interesting to note the Democratic proposal to combat the shortfall. The centerpiece is charging back use of the sheriff’s road patrol to towns that use it. Some municipalities have their own police department and so don’t use the sheriff patrols. But they pay for the service.

But that’s a painful approach. Town budgets would surely suffer. Just as the sales tax intercept proposal alone would have been painful to municipalities who share in the tax proceeds.

Hiking that sales tax, however, appears to be a pain reliever. At least for Brooks and her predicament.

Giambra laid out the pain relieving formula of sales tax hikes back in 2004 when he gave his budget choices… the tax hike or the doomsday budget. 

Perhaps when it comes to these situations, it’s all in the timing and the presentation, I suppose.

But something tells me we’re still in for the same kind of battle Erie County residents saw a few years ago.

Government Addiction to Shopping

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As Monroe County lawmakers ponder the trade of sales tax money for Medicaid relief, a new report came out that spelled out local governments relationship to the tax.

Simply put: It’s a growing addiction.

State Comptroller Alan Hevesi’s office issued a report on sales taxes in New York State that’s worth reading.

In brief the Hevesi report stated that:

***New York State has one of the highest combined state/local sales tax rates in the U.S.

***On the whole, counties are more reliant on sales taxes … even exceeding the amount collected from property taxes. In 1994, county sales taxes represented 20 percent of revenue while property taxes were 26 percent of revenue. In 2004 county sales tax revenue was up to 26 percent while the property tax was at 25 percent.

***In 2004 Monroe County, however, got $118 million from sales taxes but far more, 268 million, from the property tax. Meanwhile, the city of Rochester took in about $20 million more from the sales tax than its property tax.

***As Internet sales of goods grows in popularity, so will the amount of uncollected sales taxes. And that will mean a growing loss from this revenue source.

***The Finger Lakes Region is tied for the slowest rate of growth in sales taxes over the last six years.

***Forty three of the 57 counties in the state (outside of New York City) share the sales tax proceeds. But they share at different levels. The county that shares the most? Monroe County… which keeps only 31 percent of the total take.

Is it any wonder that Monroe County lawmakers want to get more from the sales tax… which is why they are breathing so heavily for that Medicaid Sales Tax Intercept. The plan, of course, was tabled at the Ways and Means Committee meeting a few weeks back – which was just what the Republican President of the county legislature, Wayne Zyra, said he desired.

So while we wait for that shoe to drop, remember that Monroe County believes it has good reason to feel as though it has done plenty for others with the sales tax money. And now maybe it wants a little more help from the tax for itself.

All Votes Are Local

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This may not sound like a locally-based column. But stick with it… it is.

All politics is local. It’s a phrase attributed to former speaker Tip O’Neill. Heck, he wrote a book with it as the title. This year, the phrase has been embraced by Republicans running for reelection in the House. But it’s always been followed by the incumbent class.

But, I wonder… at what cost do we all follow this belief? How harmful is following this idea?

For example, last week Rep. Tom Reynolds spoke with NPR on Tuesday about the GOP’s chances for winning post-Tom DeLay.

Reynolds talked confidently (he always does) about his party’s ability to keep control of the House (Check it out here). As you might know, Reynolds heads up the House Republican Campaign Committee. And what did he tell the NPR interviewer? He gave him the growing theme for a GOP that wants to shed the DeLay scandal (not to mention President Bush’s tumbling popularity) – that all Congressional elections are local.

These elections, Reynolds said, aren’t based on national issues, national news stories… such as those about a congressman who is stepping down because of his ties to a disgraced lobbyist. No, no. All politics is local. Reynolds spoke about the leading issue in his own district – jobs. He didn’t talk about his challenger, Democrat Jack Davis, who is slamming Reynolds and the Republicans in Congress for promoting trade initiatives that he says harm local workers.

His premise boils down to this – you vote the guy, the gal… not the party. You vote for the person who roams the district with his or her hand outstretched asking for your vote, eating the chicken at the local fair.

"It’s all about what each district has going for itself," Reynolds said. "Some, like mine, are talking about jobs… others may be talking about border security. Whatever it is… we believes its between both the incumbents and the candidates and their districts making it all politics is local."

So what’s the problem with this? Plenty, if that’s really the way we all approach elections to legislative bodies.

Reynolds may come from Western New York. And he may even be a likable fellow who relates well to Western New Yorkers in his 26th Congressional District.

But that approach disregards something. Reynolds runs as a Republican. As a member of the House, he is part of the Republican caucus. And – for better or for worse – he plays along with the team he chose. This is how a party in power – well…. uses its power.

So are you really just voting for Reynolds because he’s a great guy, who understands the concerns of his district? Doesn’t the team he plays for have any place in the vote you cast.

Are you really just voting for, say, Assembly Member Susan John, because she’s got the pulse of her Monroe County district? Is this all that’s behind your vote? Take a look at this article . John defends and supports labor in the argument for workers compensation reform. Nothing wrong with that on the surface. She clearly values the labor movement. She ought to, as head of the Labor Committee in the Assembly. It’s a position she attained because of the power structure in the Assembly, who appointed her to the post.

But, how does that make John local?

And we all know how legislative members like to go back to the district during election years and tell the voters  – "don’t forget, I know how to bring back important things for you." You know… goodies like money for local projects. They call them member items in the state capitol. A less flattering name is pork (just ask the Center for Governmental Research).

It sounds great on the local level…. just check out all the projects on this vast list that went to the Rochester area (thanks to the Empire Center for New York State Policy). What better way to show that a representative is really look out for his/her constituents than by showing the voters in his/her area the pork brought home. Why Sen. Jim Alesi has a music series at Eastman named after him. Why would he put his name there? All politics is local, right?

I’m not arguing that this premise is false. It’s a time-tested way to win reelection for incumbents.

I’m just saying that to forget that Reynolds is a member of the ruling Republican Party in the House… or that John is part of the Democrats in control of the Assembly… or that Alesi sits with the GOP majority in the State Senate… is to forget something vitally important. They help sustain that ruling majority. They are a part of it. And so… shouldn’t the decisions made by that ruling party reflect on the team members in their district come Election Day?

Maybe we could change that Tip O’Neill saying… turn it into this: All votes are local. And all voters have a choice about how they base their decision.