June 24, 2008

In Newsday op-ed, Iannuzzi calls tax cap the 'wrong answer'

Source: Newsday

The following by NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi appeared in Newsday Tuesday, June 24, 2008.

Op-ed: State property tax cap is wrong answer


Richard C. Iannuzzi of Smithtown was an elementary school teacher in Central Islip for 34 years. He is president of New York State United Teachers.

June 24, 2008

President IannuzziIn the waning days of the legislative session, Gov. David Paterson and others are unwisely calling for a property tax cap.

Property taxes, understandably, aren't very popular. They are regressive in nature, assessed with no regard to a homeowner's income or ability to pay. New York State United Teachers, as part of a diverse coalition of labor, education and policy organizations, strongly supports meaningful tax relief for New Yorkers - but not at any cost, and not by taking away from our state's greatest and most important assets: our children and grandchildren.

Even though a single-question poll by the Siena Research Institute last week appeared to show support, an arbitrary tax cap is absolutely the wrong answer. Paterson's proposed legislation would be a disservice to New Yorkers, especially the most vulnerable. The bill fails to provide real relief to senior citizens and middle-class homeowners on Long Island struggling under the burden of rising property taxes.

When you peel back the rhetoric, the tax cap proposal is no more than a simplistic and unfair approach to a real, far-reaching and complex problem.

A cap - which artificially limits the local tax revenue school districts may raise to support their educational priorities - represents state government relinquishing its responsibility to provide essential services. By requiring a supermajority of 55 percent to override the arbitrary 4 percent cap, the proposal undercuts the democratic nature of the school budget vote so important to Long Islanders. And an Albany-controlled cap represents the perpetuation and expansion of an unequal system of taxation that already puts too great a burden on working people.

While a cap may sound appealing, similar schemes have failed taxpayers in California, Massachusetts, Colorado and other states, resulting in devastating cuts to educational programs and services to children. California's Proposition 13 of 1978 - which capped the annual real estate tax on a parcel of residential property to 1 percent of its assessed value - is the most infamous failure, decimating educational quality in that state.

Paterson is a friend to education, but his bill supporting the Commission on Property Tax Relief's recommendations undermines what really should matter most for New York: the need to provide a fair system of taxation that also guarantees equity in school funding and equal access to educational opportunity for every child. While the state's recent commitment to a foundation formula, which directed more money to high-needs districts, has moved New York closer to funding equity than ever before, Paterson's proposed legislation would reverse that progress and lock in the inequities that New York has just started to erase.

Wealthy school districts would surely take advantage of a provision that would allow communities to override the cap - essentially voting to ignore Albany's taxation limits. Most poor districts, however, would be unable to garner the supermajorities they would need to spend more than the cap would allow, widening the achievement gap and leaving lower-income communities - which predominantly educate children of color - even worse off compared to more affluent school districts.

Rather than a destructive tax cap, a real solution deserving of serious consideration is a so-called circuit breaker, which would limit the amount of a household's income that can be tapped to pay property taxes. It makes sense to target meaningful property tax relief to senior citizens and middle-class families who need it most, based on their ability to pay.

As New York makes strides in equalizing school funding, and makes progress toward closing the achievement gap, a tax cap - or any measure that would widen this divide - is clearly the wrong direction.

As the impressive gains in test scores reported yesterday show, New York's public schools are succeeding. Just last month, New Yorkers set aside concerns about the economy and voted overwhelmingly to pass 92.46 percent of the state's school budgets. On Long Island, voters adopted 93.5 percent of school budgets on the first try on May 20, and in five of seven revotes last week.

We owe every child the opportunity to be a productive member of society.

Property tax relief? Yes. But, New York's children, its public schools and voters deserve better than a politically convenient, election-year fix that everyone knows is no solution at all.

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