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Forest tax freeze stricken from state budget

ALBANY - New York State lawmakers have agreed to remove a proposal from the state budget that would have frozen tax payments on state-owned forest preserve land.

While working on last-minute details of the budget last weekend, legislators reportedly worked out a deal to continue making full tax payments to local governments and school districts that have state forest preserve land within their borders.

The decision to leave out the proposal comes as welcome news to local representatives, as well as a host of Adirondack interest groups who vehemently opposed the attempt to change a long-standing policy.

"The rejection of the proposal to freeze tax payments on state-owned lands is something we can all be proud of," said Sen. Elizabeth Little. "A broad, diverse coalition of Adirondack interests demanded nothing less than the complete elimination of this proposal. We spoke with one, unified voice and got the result we wanted."

The proposal was originally included in Gov. David Paterson's Executive Budget in January. It suggested freezing the state's payments at the 2008-2009 levels, making forest preserve lands immune to annual equalization rate adjustments.

Environmental groups and taxpayer advocates alike criticized the plan for disproportionately shifting the local tax burden to private property owners and further undermining local support for state land acquisition.

"We are very pleased that this ill-conceived policy has been stricken from the budget," said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club. "The freeze would have had a significant fiscal impact on communities in the Adirondacks, Catskills and other parts of the state and would have crippled the state's open-space program at a time when so many critical parcels are available."

Under the common law principle of sovereign immunity, the state is exempt from local taxes unless it gives its consent to be taxed. When the forest preserve was established in 1886, however, the state constitution was updated to ensure the land would be valued and taxed as if it were private property.

Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward said removing the proposed freeze was one positive aspect of an otherwise bad budget for the Adirondack region. She pointed to a lack of property tax relief and several new taxes and fees for things like license plates and hunting licenses.

"We couldn't have sustained in the North Country if they had kept it in the budget with all these other increases," she said.

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