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Albany's latest ploy: surcharges on utility bills

   Consumers dodged a bullet, albeit a small-caliber one, when the New York Power Authority backed down Tuesday from its plan to raise electricity rates on upstate ratepayers.

   Consumers save about $10 million via the Power Authority retreat.

   That money will come in handy to help pay for a plan to impose higher surcharges on utilities -- which will be passed along to consumers -- that state budget negotiators are working on in Albany this week.

   The surcharges -- no, they can't be found lined out on most electric or gas bills -- will bring in at least $651 million to Albany in the coming year if Gov. David A. Paterson has his way. That is up from about $120 million the past year.

   Opponents, who include business groups, utilities and some advocates for low-income people, say the timing of such a tax increase on such basic needs -- electricity, natural gas, telephones -- is especially onerous during the steep economic slide the state is living through.

   While the Paterson administration would not comment Wednesday, the governor has said he does not want to raise taxes. But there is little choice.

   The state is facing a $16.2 billion deficit, and higher revenues and spending cuts are required if the state budget is to be balanced.

   It means higher utility taxes could be just one of many new ways New Yorkers will be asked to pay for the state budget. And new ways of raising revenues are possibly coming: higher income taxes on people making more than $250,000 annually, a higher state sales tax, and maybe expanding the bottle bill to include non-carbonated beverages. Some revenue-raising ideas were in trouble Wednesday, such as letting supermarkets sell wine.

   But is there a tipping point? Will more people flee the state if some of these plans end up making life here less affordable? Does it make sense during a recession for Albany to dig deeper in the wallets of New Yorkers? And what happened to Paterson's mantra of changing the "spendaholic" ways of state government?

   The answers, or at least some of them, will likely be known in a few days if lawmakers are right in saying they will have a budget done by the March 31 deadline.

   -- Tom Precious

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State government
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