Viewpoint: Cuomo holds budget hostage to make property tax cap permanent

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he won’t sign the state budget unless it makes permanent the property tax cap.

“The highest tax in the state is the property tax and it is a killer,” Gov. Cuomo said. “We want to reduce economic pressure on families by making sure government is not aggravating the problem with increased expenses. We’re going to cut your state income tax and we’re going to cap your property taxes so you know it’s not going higher than 2 percent. And I will tell you this as sure as I am before you today: if we do not have the permanent property tax cap in that state budget, this hand will never sign that state budget until it’s in there.”

From the very beginning, I have objected to this trampling off local control with an arbitrary and unreasonable constraint designed to hamstring and ultimately destroy local governments.

Cuomo’s original intent was to force school districts and other local governments to cannibalize their reserve funds; the second was to force consolidation and dissolution of local governments and the third was to use local taxes as the bogeyman, so politicians could appear to be on the side of taxpayers.

Of course the property tax is the largest state tax and of course, school taxes are the largest component. Something has to be the “largest.”

What should be? But local property taxes are spent where they are used, and local people have the greatest ability to participate in spending decisions. In fact, school and library taxes are the only taxes we taxpayers directly vote.

What the property tax cap does, though, is remove local control. Communities should have the right to decide if they want to improve their schools or parks. The property tax cap which basically keeps the annual increase to 2 percent or the rate of inflation whichever is less says: we don’t want any growth or improvement or new investment in your community.

We want the status quo, and if that means deterioration, so be it. (Little known fact: the property tax cap incentivizes bonding because the debt service isn’t counted toward the cap.)

Somehow, and fairly ingeniously I think, the Great Neck Public School district has managed to continue to be among the best in the country and still average only 1.8 percent increase in the tax levy since the property tax cap was implemented in 2012, despite increasing enrollments and unfunded state mandates.

This year, though, through the complicated formula, the school district could have raised taxes by 4.09 percent and still fall within the cap, is only seeking 1.94 percent increase.

But here’s the thing: it is a lie that New York State’s property taxes are the highest in the nation; or that Nassau County’s taxes are the highest.

According to a survey by Wallethub, a financial services company, New York State ranks 8th (not first) in property taxes. New York ranks 43rd in its real estate tax rate, at 1.68 percent.

You know which states have higher rates? Nebraska (1.80), Texas (1.83), Vermont (1.83), Wisconsin (1.94), Connecticut (2.07), New Hampshire (2.20), Illinois (2.31), and New Jersey (2.44) (See the study: https://wallethub.com/edu/states-with-the-highest-and-lowest-property-taxes/11585/)

Even so, do you want to be Alabama, which is No. 2 for lowest taxes, where the median home value is $132,000 and the tax is $558 (0.42 percent), or Louisiana,  No. 3, where the median home value is $152,900 and median tax is $795 (0.52 percent)? Louisiana ranks 51st in health care, Alabama is 48th.

USA Today ranks New York’s public education 9th: “Between 2003 and 2015, the achievement gap between eighth graders living in poverty and their wealthier peers narrowed by the largest amount of all states…Annual public school funding totals $18,665 per pupil in New York, the third highest expenditure of all states.” Alabama ranks 43rd in education (14th lowest in public school spending at $10,142); Louisiana is 46th, Mississippi is 48th.

Yes, total taxes are high: New Yorkers spend 17.07 percent of income on taxes, second highest after Connecticut (17.65 percent).

But New York State is spending billions on a 21st century infrastructure and racing toward 50:50 clean, renewable energy by 2030. This is where I want to live. So do 20 million others, a number that is increasing, even as unemployment rates are at the lowest ever and the number of jobs is at an all-time high.

We pay a lot in taxes because our incomes and our housing values are higher, what is more, we get more for our money, making for a higher quality of life.

The states that don’t charge an appropriate amount of state and local taxes – that is related to the cost of providing services and public investment – depend on federal handouts.

New York is one of 11 states that send more money to the federal government than it gets back, in fact, the No. 1 donor state, sending $36-$48 billion more to the federal government than it gets back. Alabama is 4th “most federally dependent state”; Louisiana is 10th. Not coincidentally, the 11 Donor States vote blue.

(Here’s an idea: New York should do what tenants do in a landlord dispute and put that $36 billion into escrow until the SALT deductibility issue is fixed.)

According to State Comptroller Tom Dinapoli, the SALT deduction cap has driven down tax receipts by $2.3 billion, as wealthiest New Yorkers choose other places for primary residency.

But we shouldn’t be punishing our localities because of the criminality of Republicans to use the tax code as a political weapon.

The tax cap also is a political weapon.

The larger objective is to force villages to consolidate into towns, towns into counties, school districts into larger school districts. But the fallacy in that is all that it saves is a few administrative positions.

Villages and school districts already have cooperative purchasing, mutual aid; school districts even cooperate on transportation where feasible. Our school district spends 4 percent of its budget on administration, the lion’s share, 75 percent, on instruction. (To see where your schools spend every penny, come to Great Neck South High School this Saturday at 9:30 am for the line-by-line budget review.)

But just as Cuomo and the Congress members decry Trump’s disparity in federal spending for blue states versus red states and the attack on the state’s ability to raise revenue and spend, it is the same thing with local spending: there is gigantic disparity in the level of state aid to school districts, with the result that New York City only has to raise 50 percent of its school budget from property taxes, while Great Neck, which gets just 4 percent from state aid, has to raise 95 percent through property taxes.

Here’s another measure: Roosevelt, with 3,270 enrolled students, gets $53 million in state aid; Great Neck, with 6,399 enrolled students, gets $10 million – the difference made up from property taxes. That’s just the way it is.

The state boasts that since 2012, the tax cap has “saved” taxpayers $24.4 billion statewide – that works out to $1,000 per capita, divided by seven years, or $142 a year. I’m not sure that’s worth giving up local control.

The responsibility for determining if our elected representatives are properly handling our tax appropriations is on the community, not an arbitrarily selected cap enshrined in law.

1 COMMENT

  1. “According to a survey by Wallethub, a financial services company, New York State ranks 8th (not first) in property taxes. New York ranks 43rd in its real estate tax rate, at 1.68 percent.”

    Unfortunately, this is not a valid argument. The economic makeup of each state varies widely, and New York’s can be skewed downwards taking an “all in” count. Per capita income in the Bronx is $17,575. In Manhattan, it’s $111,886.

    As I wrote in response to Mr. Kremer,
    “They’ve (Long Island Democrats) been perfectly fine with the most regressive property tax system in the nation that assures them that everyone will know their place, and their world won’t be disturbed. They’ve paid lip service to the widest earnings gap of the Post War era, decades long wage stagnation, and a trebling of health care costs. In other words, they’re not Democrats.”

    I know the author fancies herself a progressive. But you CAN’T be one since Long Island educators receive 18 out of 20 of the highest pensions in the State, and this cost is borne by people who can’t even fund an IRA while their wages are literally strip mined by a preposterously overcompensated civil service.

    Ms. Rubin finds this objectionable:

    “Here’s another measure: Roosevelt, with 3,270 enrolled students, gets $53 million in state aid; Great Neck, with 6,399 enrolled students, gets $10 million – the difference made up from property taxes. That’s just the way it is.”

    That’s the way it’s SUPPOSED to be, Ms. Rubin. Roosevelt is an impoverished neighborhood. Great Neck has some of the wealthiest zip codes in the nation. They don’t NEED state aid. Roosevelt does, but again, this IS the thought process of a Long Island Democrat: Someone in Sands Point can pay 5% of their income in property tax, and someone in Roosevelt working two jobs can pay 25% of their income to cover it, and people who tolerate this consider themselves “progressive.” This is a preposterous conceit.

    “That’s just the way it is.”

    Yeah. I know.

    Ms. Rubin would do well to advocate a progressive tax system that stops punishing the poor and the middle class, and stop having them fund $300,000 pensions through NYSTRS. Ending THAT would make a for a noticeable drop in property taxes. And reset remuneration policy to reflect the real economy people live in.

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