Which Political Party Do You Trust With Your Taxes?

Eric Lerner

October 4, 2004


Republicans --locally as well as nationally -- enjoy striking a pose of fiscal conservatism.  But Tompkins County's Democratic Legislature has been far more successful at controlling property taxes than the Republicans were.  Let's look at the record.


I've been visiting the County Courthouse to excavate dusty old county budget documents.  Before I say what I learned, I must remind you of some history.  A Republican majority controlled Tompkins County government uninterruptedly from the Lincoln administration through 1993.  In the 1993 election, the Democrats for the first time became the majority party, riding a wave of public anger over the growth of county taxes and fees.  I'm proud to have been a part of that historic transition. 


The twelve years since the Democrats took control, with first Stuart Stein, then Barbara Mink, and now Tim Joseph as Chair, have established a clear track record.  Let's compare 12 years of Democratic County budgets (1995-2006) to the final 12 years of Republican budgets (1983-1994.)


The most straightforward measure of tax growth is to look at the tax levy, that is, the total amount of property tax in the County budget.  The tax levy is influenced by changes in tax rate and assessments, as well as by new construction, and by properties moving onto or off of the tax rolls. 


Here's the central truth: Under the Democrats, the County property tax levy has grown by 98% in 12 years, while under Republican leadership, the tax levy grew almost three times as fast: 273% in 12 years.  The bar graph couldn't be clearer.*








Republican 1982-1994





Democratic 1994-2006






Actually that graph makes the Republican record look better than it really is.  A 1992 increase in the sales tax by a penny from 7% to 8% brought in about $6 million more in its first full year. And 1993's new Solid Waste Annual Fee raised another $2.5 million dollars.  If those additional costs to taxpayers had been put on the property tax instead, the graph would get even more lopsided, with the Republicans' total increase showing more than 4 times the Democrats'.




Tax Levy Growth with Sales Tax Increase & Solid Waste Fee







Democratic 1994-2006





Property Tax levy




Sales Tax extra penny




Solid Waste Annual Fee








Why the big difference?



Republicans today, just like twenty-four years ago, are urging lower taxes combined with more spending on Sheriff and Highways.  Then and now, they have trouble grasping the fact that those are the county's largest and most expensive non-mandated programs.  Spending more on the big programs while trying to cut smaller programs is no strategy for reducing spending.  Sheriff and Highway programs are of course essential.  But like all other county programs, they must plan thoughtfully and budget carefully.  Controlling taxes means controlling the large expenses, not just the small ones. 


In this year's election, Republican candidates are again talking tough on property taxes.  The "borrow and spend" policies of the Bush administration are a reminder of Republican bogus fiscal conservatism.  Local Republicans' record on taxes shows us what to expect from them.  Let's not be fooled again.


Next time you hear a Republican candidate glibly promote reducing property taxes by spending more on Sheriff and Highway, ask him about the Republican record on property taxes.  And next time you meet a Democrat on the county legislature, say "Thank you". 


Eric Lerner was chair of the County Budget & Fiscal Policy Committee, 1994-95. 

* Technical Note: Although the Democratic majority took office in 1994, the 1994 budget was passed in 1993, under Republican leadership.   Also, the final 2006 budget has not yet been approved.  Figures are from the County Administrator's recommended 2006 budget.  I had hoped also to compare changes in tax rate in this essay.  However, complex technical changes in assessment and equalization over the years make a direct comparison impossible.