August 09, 2006

Competing Proposals On Tap For Debate

What a difference a season makes. Last spring when gas prices neared the $3 mark, consumers were scandalized and begged for relief. Now, the notion of a $3 gallon of gas prompts a sense of nostalgia.

As The Independent went to press yesterday, the county legislature was poised to vote on two separate and in some senses competing measures designed to provide tax relief to county residents. Whether they actually do, or whether the relief comes at a price that's worse than the gas pump pain remains to be seen.

Soon after the prices began to soar, East End Legislators Ed Romaine and Jay Schneiderman proposed setting a cap on the amount of sales tax the county collects on gasoline. The initiative mirrors a law enacted by the state. Democrats on the legislature emphatically opposed setting a cap at $2, citing the budgetary impacts the loss of revenue would entail as well as expressing doubt the money would ever actually reach consumers.

In reaction, the Democratic caucus proposed enacting what they called "real" tax relief – earmarking three dates in 2007 for tax-free clothes shopping. Trouble is, the state has changed its laws regarding tax–free clothes shopping, so the county would need support from Albany in the form of an act of the legislature to move forward.

And according to East End lawmakers, there's more trouble. Dems have proposed using public safety money that's supposed to go to East End police departments to offset the revenue lost by a countywide tax free shopping initiative.

Last Friday, Schneiderman excoriated the proposal as little more than a political set-up, "a phony bill." The Democrats are "punishing" the East End lawmakers for putting them on the spot regarding the gasoline sales tax by putting them in the uncomfortable place of choosing between a clothing sales tax exemption and money for police departments in their districts, he said. A vote against the initiative could provide campaign fodder for the future, with opponents labeling the two Republicans as the ones who voted against tax–free shopping. Regardless, Schneiderman said, "I can't vote against my police departments."

The pair may find an ally in an unexpected place. According to sources within the administration, County Executive Steve Levy expressed opposition to the notion of using public safety revenue to offset the tax-free clothing plan. He crafted the revenue–sharing proposal the Democrats' measure would cannibalize, and, sources say, took a dim view of reneging on that promise.

Beyond opposing the Democratic proposal, Levy debuted his own gasoline sales tax relief plan in June. His measure sets a $3 cap, meaning the county will freeze the amount of sales tax it collects at $3. The measure would actually be most beneficial on the South Fork where gasoline averages at least 20 cents per gallon more than elsewhere on the Island.

But like the Democrats' legislation, the proposal comes with a price. To offset the revenue loss, Levy calls for cutbacks to legislative staff and slicing legislative member items. Member items are grants individual legislators give to local charities and civic organizations. Minor gasoline tax relief ought not come at the expense of food pantries, Schneiderman complained this week.

Debate on both proposals by the full legislature was expected to get underway yesterday afternoon.

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