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ALBANY - A midlevel court has rejected a teachers’ union claim that New York’s property-tax cap is unconstitutional, marking another defeat for the union trying to upend the law.
The Appellate Division, in a 4-1 decision handed down Thursday, said the tax cap doesn’t violate due process or equal protection clauses of the constitution, as the New York State United Teachers’ lawsuit claimed.
The tax cap, enacted in 2011, forces school districts and local governments to keep tax increases at 2 percent or the rate of inflation (with other factors built in for adjustments) — unless approved by a 60 percent “supermajority.”
The union had claimed that the supermajority requirement deprived some students of equal protection. The union would prefer votes on school-district budgets to require a simple majority. It also argued that the cap can deprive some students of the “sound, basic” education the state constitution guarantees.
The court rejected those arguments.
The tax cap and a related tax freeze statute “incentivize districts and their residents to avoid property tax increases over the tax cap, neither prevents such increases if sufficient community support exists for them,” Justice Eugene Devine wrote for the majority. “The differences in the services offered by various school districts accordingly result from a permissible consequence of local control over schools, namely, the variable willingness of the taxpayers of different districts to pay for and to provide enriched educational services and facilities beyond what the basic per pupil expenditure figures will permit.”
Further, the supermajority requirement “passes constitutional muster” unless it can be shown it discriminates against a certain class and “nothing of the sort is alleged here,” Devine added.
The ruling upheld a decision by a trial court judge in 2015.
“It is very likely we will appeal,” said Carl Korn of New York State United Teachers. He said the union is still reviewing the decision, but found some support for its argument in the opinion written by the one dissenting judge, Justice Michael Lynch.
“With the conceded disparate funding, compounded by the fact that taxpayers within the poorer school districts end up subsidizing, at least in part, the tax credits granted to taxpayers within the wealthier districts, I find that plaintiffs have stated a viable equal protection claim,” Lynch wrote.
Korn said: “Judge Lynch identified some of the key issues with the tax cap — that it undermines local control and exacerbates the already inequity in funding that negatively impacts the poorest and vulnerable students in the state.”
Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, called the court’s decision a “victory” for taxpayers and said the tax cap was “an undeniable success that reigned in out-of-control property tax increases and delivered real relief to overburdened taxpayers.”