Three years ago a couple of “Let’s Talk Native…” regulars and I made the trip to Albany to try to get some straight answers to a couple of simple questions. Matt Hill, Paul Delaronde and I met with New York State Senator George Maziarz, Republican from the 62nd Senate District of New York, to see if a State Senator could get an answer to a question that the State’s tax department refused to give us. We sat with the Senator and first queried him on his position on Native-to-Native trade and the State’s authority over our commerce and our manufactured goods.
Senator Maziarz made it very clear where he stood on the issues. Despite legislation that the State legislature had recently passed that was to shut down State-licensed wholesalers from continuing a 30- year practice of selling unstamped (untaxed) cigarettes to Native retailers, he felt strongly that the State had no authority to interfere with Native-to-Native trade and he was in full support of the trade we had established with Native-manufactured product.
The problem that we encountered was that we could not get a straight answer out of the Governor’s office, the State Attorney General’s Office or out of the State’s Department of Taxation and Finance clarifying the State’s legal, political or regulatory policy on Native-to-Native trade or on Native- manufactured goods. They flat out refused to tell us.
So we figured, surely a State Senator could get us an answer. The Senator agreed to let me work with his staff to draft a letter to Thomas Mattox, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance requesting clarity on the State’s position and intent. While at the State Capital, I also decided to pursue support for answers from across the political aisle and asked State Senator Timothy Kennedy, Democrat from the 63rd Senate District, if he would sign onto such a letter. He agreed. So now we had Senators from both political parties pressing for a public announcement of a policy that by law should have been clear and unambiguous in the first place rather than a military secret.
The letter sent from Senators Maziarz and Kennedy on May 16, 2011 stated clearly that:
“It is our view that the State should not pursue an effort to collect taxes on Native Brands because such an effort would be contrary to the sovereign rights of the Native American Nations, and would be a severe blow to the Native retail economy.”
The letter proceeded to make a specific and quite reasonable request.
“[W]e request that you provide clarification to us as soon as possible and in writing. It is very important that all of the citizens of the State of New York and their elected representatives know what the intention of your Department is with regard to the collection of State taxes on Native Brand cigarettes and tobacco products.”
To my surprise I learned that even the guys who are credited with making these stupid laws couldn’t get answers about their implementation or covert exaggeration.
More than a year later I convinced Senator Maziarz to follow up on his prior unanswered request. This inquiry was made in light of an absolute refusal to respond to his first letter and action from the State Attorney General attempting to stop Native manufacturers from shipping, selling and distributing products to Native territories. This “cease and desist” order came in the wake of a court ruling by the New York State Supreme Court ordering the State to release a seized truckload of Native-produced cigarettes.
Senator Maziarz on June 27, 2012 again wrote to the Tax Commissioner:
“In my view, the recent court case acknowledges that Native Brand cigarettes that are produced and sold on lands owned by Native Nations constitute commerce that is Native to Native. As such these transactions cannot (and should not) be regulated and taxed by the State of New York. To do so would be contrary to the sovereign rights of the Native American Nations, and have significant negative impact on the Native retail economy.”
And the Senator once again restated his request:
“Although the NYS Supreme Court case starts to provide some direction on the status of the taxation of Native American cigarettes, there is still much uncertainty in this area. Consequently, we request that you provide written clarification to us as soon as possible.”
As we approach three years from the original request there is still a refusal by the State to provide a written explanation of their policy or intent. This is not rule of law. Heck! The lawmakers themselves can’t get an answer from these extortionists.
This week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his new get tough policy/propaganda against cigarette smuggling. He announced the formation of a 13-agency task force dedicated to keeping illegal cigarettes out of the State.
“This new law-enforcement strategy will help to crack down on these illegal cigarette sales and capture those smugglers who seek to evade the law and rob the state of the revenue it is rightly owed,” Cuomo said.
The problem is that neither the mob boss nor his minions will say where the Native tobacco trade fits into this conversation.
A recent study by a non-partisan tax policy think tank, the Tax Foundation, revealed that almost 57% of the cigarettes consumed in New York State are brought into the state illegally. Nothing in the Tax Foundation’s report suggests any of this percentage includes Native brands or Native sales nor does it imply that Native sales are illegal or considered smuggling. The report clearly assigns the vast majority of “smuggled” cigarettes to Virginia and three other low-taxed states that do not affix tax stamps to cigarettes.
So there we have it — New York State policies so covert that the actual lawmakers from either party are denied access while the “Boss” chases his tail on what is real revenue leakage and where his revenue is actually leaking to.