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Home rule is only a state of mind

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New York is supposed to be a home rule state. Essentially, that means the cities, counties, towns and villages of the state have considerable leeway in running their own operations, as long as they stay within the confines of the state constitution and state laws. The state's Municipal Home Rule law says: “In addition to powers granted in the constitution, the statute of local governments or in any other law, (i) every local government shall have power to adopt and amend local laws not inconsistent with the provisions of the constitution or not inconsistent with any general law relating to its property, affairs or government;”.

One of the provisions of state law that was designed by the Legislature to give counties more control over their own fiscal affairs was including them in the power to share in the sales tax levy. And every county in the state now does that, at rates varying from 3 percent local share (these five are counties north of the Thruway — Hamilton, St. Lawrence, Saratoga, Warren and Washington) to 4.875 percent in New York City.

A flawed quirk in the legislation requires that counties that want to raise their sales tax rate beyond the initial authorized rate must go back to the Legislature for reauthorization of that rate every two years. In the past, this has been mostly a nuisance; the counties pass a resolution authorizing the rate and then seek local state legislators to introduce a home-rule bill in both houses of the Legislature authorizing the rate for two years.

While this used to be a simple process, it has become a galling political football. Activist legislators, mostly but not exclusively Republicans, use the request to either strong-arm their counties into doing something as a quid pro quo — “I'll offer your bill if you do this or that” — or as a bully pulpit to pontificate the party's ridiculous “no new taxes” mantra, or to appear to be, at no cost to themselves, looking out for Joe Sixpack.

Right now, Jefferson County's loyal-Republican-dominated Legislature needs to have 0.75 percent of the 3.75 percent local share reauthorized. And while Democratic Assemblywoman Addie Jennie Russell is drafting legislation to do that, newly minted Republican state Sen. Patty Ritchie has apparently decided to make the county jump through a few hoops before telling them whether or not she will carry this home-rule bill to the Senate. Never mind that this is not a new tax. And never mind that it is her fellow Republicans who have decided the county needs this revenue. And never mind that 51 of the state's 66 sales tax districts (including several cities) have local tax rates of 4 percent or above. For Pattie Ritchie, this is about Pattie Ritchie — it is NOT about her constituents, or serving her colleagues in county government.

Ms. Ritchie, and legislators like her, are subverting the concept of home rule. For Ritchie, it is particularly hypocritical — as St. Lawrence County Clerk, she made a lot of noise about how the state should stop interfering with such things as motor vehicle licensing and registration and as both candidate and senator, she has railed against unfunded mandates. Yet her refusal to submit this home rule legislation for Jefferson County is the broadest unfunded mandate of them all — she wants Jefferson County to pay for all the many things the state requires it to provide, but she won't let the county's elected officials determine how best to do so. And in doing that, she is really just driving up the already untenable property tax.

If New York is going to be a home-rule state, the Legislature has to play along. For one thing, its members should remember where they came from, since most of them moved up from some local government job. For another, it members should presume that counties, for example, know at least as much about running their own affairs as the Legislature does. I hope Pattie Ritchie is listening.

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