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Tax official grilled on late STAR rebate checks

STAR website

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s acting tax commissioner took heat Tuesday from Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature over delays in the STAR rebate program. The hearing was interrupted by protesters who want higher taxes on millionaires.

Lawmakers changed the rules of the STAR school property tax rebates so that new homeowners would get their rebates by the end of September to use them toward their tax bills. That was September 2016. Five months later, some senators and Assembly members say they are hearing from constituents who still have not received their money.

Some senior citizens eligible for an enhanced STAR tax credit also have not been mailed their checks. Senate Finance Committee Chair Cathy Young from Olean called it a “debacle.”

Senator Jim Tedisco, a Republican from Schenectady, asked acting tax commissioner Nonie Manion during a budget hearing why the checks have been so slow to arrive. He said his staff and “throngs” of constituents have tried, to no avail, to get answers.

“All of us get three words,” Tedisco said. “It’s ‘we don’t know.’ ”

Manion responded that it’s complicated.

“We feel the pain of not being able to answer questions,” said Manion, who added local governments were partly to blame for not getting tax information to the state quickly enough. She also blamed a lack of good data from local school districts.

Tedisco and other lawmakers asked whether taxpayers owed the rebates could receive interest on the late payments, and whether those owed money could pay their taxes late.

“I’m pretty sure if one of my constituents calls up and said, ‘I’m 30 days late, but my dog ate my application and my tax filing. Or I accidently put it in the fireplace to start a fire,’ that’s not going to work,” Tedisco said. “They’re going to pay interest, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” Manion said.

New York currently does not have an actual tax commissioner. The former commissioner, Jerry Boone, abruptly resigned last September and has not been replaced.

E.J. McMahon with the fiscally conservative Empire Center, who also testified, said the real issue is that the STAR rebate checks are poorly conceived.

“That’s a really bad example of tax policy,” said McMahon, who praised lawmakers for agreeing to an actual tax cut for middle-class income earners.

The middle-class tax cut, approved last year, begins phasing in in the new budget and would be fully implemented in 2020.

Meanwhile, the Senate Committee on Investigations has begun an inquiry into the delayed checks. It’s asking how many people have applied for the checks, what the average time is to process the requests, and when the tax department expects all of the checks to finally be in the mail.

Manion has until Feb. 17 to provide answers.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.