Cuomo's speech highlights key LI issues

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ALBANY - Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo addressed key Long Island issues Wednesday in proposing to cap increases in property taxes and suggesting that schools compete for state aid.

In his first State of the State speech, Cuomo called for two competitions in which school districts would vie for a small portion of education aid, which this year totals nearly $22 billion.

Districts that improve student performance or become more efficient would share $500 million in grants each year, for the first time.

"When it comes to education funding . . . a school district gets their numerical formula and that's what they're going to get, whether they do a good job, a bad job, it doesn't matter," he said.

Cuomo suggested following the competitive process used for last year's Race to the Top, a federal program that aims to bolster schools nationwide.

"When you just give people cash with no results, you take the incentives out of the system," he said.

Still, some school superintendents on Long Island expressed concern about competition resulting in less state aid.

That, combined with a 2-percent cap on yearly increases in property taxes, would create a severe cash crunch they said, as school districts face soaring employee costs for wages, health care and pensions.

"Where am I going to get the money to do this and win an incentive if they're going to be cutting aid?" said William H. Johnson, superintendent of the Rockville Centre school district.

He predicted the tax cap, if adopted, would devastate education on the Island because districts would have no choice but to lay off teachers and end special classes.

However, in the Capitol Wednesday, many area politicians embraced Cuomo's proposals for a tax cap, competitive school aid and fewer state regulations on local governments. The new governor has established a panel to recommend which unfunded mandates should be eliminated.

"Taxpayers are choking; the cap is sorely needed," said State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), who is expected to lead the education committee. "But we cannot forget about mandate relief; the two go together."

Assemb. Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue) agreed, saying he was encouraged to see Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) back a tax cap Wednesday.

The Assembly's Democratic majority adopted a cap in the mid-1990s but since then has refused to take up proposals adopted by the State Senate.

Asked about his tax cap endorsement, Silver wouldn't say whether he supported Cuomo's 2 percent limit on yearly tax hikes or former Gov. David A. Paterson's 4 percent limit.

Cuomo isn't the first governor to propose awarding state aid based on students' academic performance. In 2002, the Education Commission of the States, a Washington-based think tank, found nine states, including New Jersey, used such incentives.

In addition, both Paterson and former Gov. George Pataki called for financial incentives to spur reductions in school administration costs.

Area residents who attended the State of the State said they believe Long Island's schools will be able to compete for the grants.

"We're well suited because our schools are already sharing services with other governments," said Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association business group. "We're a couple of steps ahead of the rest of the state."

With Patrick Whittle

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