Court May Decide Fate of Property Tax Caps
Tax cap denies a ‘sound, basic’ education system
Fred LeBrun, Commentary
Published 8:39 pm, Saturday, February 23, 2013 – Times Union
A cornerstone of the Cuomo administration’s self-declared tower of accomplishments was marked for demolition last week. It can’t be blown up high enough or fast enough.
The governor’s beloved 2 percent tax cap was challenged in a lawsuit filed by the New York State United Teachers union in state Supreme Court in Albany. The suit offers multiple arguments why the tax cap is unconstitutional, asserting that it locks in unequal funding between have- and have-not school districts across the state, ”while pushing many school districts to the brink of educational and financial insolvency,” in the words of NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi.
The assertion is that the tax cap denies a ”sound, basic” education, as guaranteed by the state constitution, to a significant and growing number. And that’s correct.
It is irrefutable that the effect of the incomplete tax cap passed in June 2011, while politically popular and a contributor to the governor’s high standing, has been disastrous for school districts and local governments. School districts have two sources of revenue: state aid and local taxes. The share of school budgets that is state aid has declined nearly 10 percent over the last decade, and the tax cap makes it far more difficult, especially in poorer districts, for localities to make up the difference from property tax levies. One of the arguments in the lawsuit is that because 60 percent of voters are needed to override the tax cap in a local school budget election, 41 percent of the voters saying no have more power than 59 percent who want to spend more. That totally distorts local control.
Sadly, we are watching a catastrophe unfold that will deeply affect many of our children at their most vulnerable ages, and which will have consequences for the rest of their lives.
The State Education Department has warned that between 100 and 200 school districts will be insolvent within two years.
That’s up to a quarter of the state’s school districts, with more predicted to follow. That means those schools won’t be able to meet their obligations and will very likely be broken as teaching institutions as well. The multi-year highway to insolvency for many of them will be already littered with discarded teachers and administrators, dropped programs and advanced placement courses required for college admission, and cuts, cuts and more cuts impacting the core teaching mission.
Seared in memory is Cuomo holding court early in his tenure as the self-proclaimed education savior, telling us he was assuming the role of chief advocate for school children out of necessity. That was at the time he was also busy vilifying teachers, administrators and the ”education bureaucracy.”
The inconvenient truth for the governor is that if he lived in the real world, he’d be hauled into court for child neglect on a colossal scale for what he’s allowed to happen to this state’s once-proud public education system.
What the Legislature passed in 2011 was a mutation of a tax cap, because it failed to incorporate two critical components that made the Massachusetts model next door successful. First, it did not offer any significant mandate relief to localities to keep spiraling dictated-from-above costs in line. That still hasn’t happened. And secondly, the state has not stepped in with infusions of direct aid to compensate for what localities can no longer raise.
Granted, New York remains in a deep, prolonged recession, so the direct aid is tougher to come by. But that also reflects this governor’s priorities. He’s been able to close historic budget gaps. Those gaps no longer exist. A similar effort could be made to adequately fund school districts if the governor so chose.