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Fight Over Energy Tax

Posted on 04 April 2010

By Karl Grossman

It’s become one of the nastier partisan battles being fought on the Suffolk County Legislature: whether to keep or repeal the county’s residential energy tax. The energy tax, instituted in 2001, comes to 2.5 percent on home energy fuels. These include fuel oil, electricity, natural gas, propane, kerosene, even wood.

The tax has increasingly hurt as the price of energy to heat a house has skyrocketed in recent years (heating oil cost $1 a gallon in 2001 and is now near $3), with cold winters, particularly this one, and with a shaky economy affecting so many people. .

Legislator Edward Romaine of Center Moriches, a Republican, has proposed a referendum in Suffolk on keeping or repealing the residential energy tax. At a news conference, Mr. Romaine said: “Let the people decide whether they want this nuisance tax.” And in a written statement, he and two other Repubican legislators, freshmen Tom Cilmi of Bay Shore and Tom Muratore of Ronkonkoma, described the residential energy tax as “regressive” because it is “not related to an individual’s ability to pay and taxes a necessity of life.”

Mr. Romaine was sharply attacked by William Lindsay, the presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature, and a Democrat. Mr. Lindsay fired off a press release charging the Romaine bill “could double county general fund property taxes”

Mr. Lindsay’s statement said: “This proposal sounds great but the energy tax brings in over $50 million annually. Legislator Romaine’s proposal is absurd when we are already $100 million in the hole. This is not good government. It is political pandering at its worst.” (The $50 million in receipts, not too incidentally, is a near three-fold increase from when the tax was imposed in 2001.)

Mr. Romaine responded: “In my years as a county legislator, I have never attacked any of my colleagues personally. Individuals and political parties often disagree” and “while it is fair for Mr. Lindsay to disagree with my proposal, it is unfair for him to spread false information and make personal attacks.”

Romaine emphasized that his bill “merely authorizes a referendum.” And if that referendum passed and the energy tax repealed, “we will identify offsets to close any budget gap that may exist.”

At a public hearing before the legislature last month, Gene McGowan, a member of the executive committee of the Brightwaters-based Conservative Society for Action, testified in favor of the Romaine resolution declaring that “in these times, when times are tough, citizens in Suffolk County have to tighten our belts. This tax should be repealed to keep some money in people’s pockets.” As to the $50 million lost by county government, he said “we are one of the highest-taxed counties in the nation” and the $50 million “comes to 1.9 percent of the county government’s $2.8 billion annual budget. Certainly we can find cuts that equal that.”

Meanwhile, the legislative split over the Romaine bill has broken along party lines with the panel’s majority Democrats supporting Mr. Lindsay’s position and its Republican members backing the referendum on the tax.

The energy tax has been a hot issue, too, in neighboring Nassau County where a comparable statute to Suffolk’s was pushed through last year by Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, a Democrat, also instituting a 2.5 percent levy, and was supported by a Democrat-controlled Nassau Legislature. It blew up in Mr. Suozzi’s political face as his Republican opponent in November’s election, Edward Mangano, made repeal of the tax a centerpiece of his winning campaign.

Between the election and Mr. Mangano being sworn in, the Nassau Legislature reversed itself and voted to repeal the tax and Mr. Mangano made signing the repeal measure his first order of business—actually during his inauguration ceremony. After signing the repeal bill on the stage on which he was inaugurated, he declared: “The document I just signed makes good on my promise and that of my Republican colleagues and the home energy tax is hereby repealed.”

Long Island Business News, in a commentary on that move by Mr. Mangano, accurately described the “home energy tax that helped lead to the ruin of his rival, Democrat Tom Suozzi.”

With what happened in Nassau in mind, how smart is it for Suffolk Democratic legislators to hold tight to the Suffolk residential energy tax? Not smart at all politically.

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