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North country legislators unanimous on tax break for middle class

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North country legislators unanimously supported a bill Wednesday night that will lower income taxes for most north country residents but will raise them for the rich, a move that will bring $1.9 billion more into strained state coffers.

“There are times when you have to compromise,” said Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, who had previously said he’d only support income tax changes that didn’t bring in extra money. “I’m more interested in the middle class tax break that’s coming.”

The law, which was hastily negotiated and even more hastily passed during a special session in Albany, made New York’s income tax structure progressive. The bill’s contents — including the specifics of the new tax structure — were released just before the bill was voted on, prompting some reporters on the microblogging website Twitter to jokingly challenge followers to see if they could read its 33 pages before it was passed.

Under a progressive structure, people earning the least will pay a lower percentage of their income in taxes to the state than those earning the most.

Only 30 millionaires reside in Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, according to state figures.

A temporary income tax surcharge on those making $200,000 or more was set to expire on Dec. 31. It raised about $4 billion a year. This tax increase will raise about half of that figure.

Republican lawmakers from the north country who had all year resisted calls for a renewal of the so-called “millionaires’ tax” rejected the notion that Wednesday night’s bill constituted a tax increase. Some of the arguments that helped sway them were the same arguments that they had previously rejected.

“There’s more of a middle-to-lower income constituents in my constituency than people making $2 million or more,” Mr. Blankenbush said.

But Mr. Blankenbush had previously argued that taxing the wealthy would hurt job creators and drive them out of the state.

Mr. Blankenbush responded by noting that many business groups support the plan, and that the wealthy “are going to be paying less in taxes in 2012 than they did in 2011.”

While that is true, it is also true that they will pay more in taxes in 2012 than they would have paid in 2012 if the Legislature had done nothing because of the expiration of the millionaires’ tax.

And yet, despite that, read their lips: These aren’t new taxes.

“I reject that,” said state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, who said Wednesday night that she would likely support the measure. She had opposed extension of the temporary surcharge. “This really isn’t a tax hike. Everyone pays less. The rates are cut across the board.”

Mrs. Ritchie said that the extra $1.9 billion in additional revenue that the new tax code would raise should go toward preserving education funding.

State Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, who supported the measure, similarly argued Tuesday night when the first details began to emerge that taxpayers would pay less in 2012 than they did in 2011.

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, the lone Democrat in the north country’s legislative delegation, is also the lone member of the delegation who will not be tarred with the flip-flop label. She has advocated an extension of taxes on the wealthy to help the state plug a projected $3.5 billion budget gap next year and to help sustain state services. She voted in favor of the bill Wednesday night.

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