Four years after it was enacted, the property tax cap in New York has worked. The proof is in the modest increases in school budgets that Long Islanders overwhelmingly passed Tuesday. And we see it in property tax bills, too.
In fact, the cap has worked so well that it's hard to remember how much opposition the concept got before it went into effect.
Just think back to June 2010 when the State Assembly failed to pass a 4-percent tax cap that included only a 55 percent approval vote to override. Tremendous public union opposition killed it even though voter polls showed more than 80 percent supported a cap.CartoonDavies' latest cartoon: Key to the White HouseCommentSubmit your letterReader essaysGet published in Newsday
But that fall, as a candidate for governor, Andrew M. Cuomo promised a harsher limit of 2 percent or inflation, whichever was lower. He won the office in a landslide and claimed a mandate for his lower cap, and its more difficult 60 percent vote needed to override.
The argument for the cap was simple: In the 30 years since 1982, school taxes increased an average of 6 percent a year, more than quintupling statewide from $3.5 billion to $19.7 billion. Such a runaway rate of increases was unsustainable in a region already groaning under high taxes. Only a legal limit would stop even bigger bills and the spending by school districts and local governments that drove the increases.
Again, public service unions led by New York State United Teachers fought against the change, saying it would starve underfunded schools. Some taxpayer-advocacy groups also opposed the cap, saying it wouldn't do enough to bring down property taxes. They wanted bigger changes in Albany, such as nixing laws that guarantee public employees annual raises even after their contracts have expired.
Now, we can see the cap is doing what was intended: slowing the growth of property taxes, to bring them more into line with taxpayer income over time. Or at least stop them from getting further out of line.
The rate of tax increases has slowed so dramatically that over the past four years the median Long Island household has saved about $3,000. That's a savings that will grow exponentially: every savings from a smaller increase compounds every year in the future. Schools haven't collapsed as a result, and municipal services haven't disappeared. The roads are plowed. Schools have classrooms and teachers.
There has been belt-tightening . . . as intended. There also has been more dipping into reserves to maintain high spending, which was not the purpose of the funds. That will end, though, as reserves fade.
As we go further into the tax cap era, more changes will come, and voters should make sure they have a say in the choices their school boards make. If residents want more programs than the cap will allow, then they need to get loud about where savings can be found, or vote to exceed the cap as East Meadow did to get full-day kindergarten.
Cap-imposed changes will continue, and will sometimes be painful. This year, lower pension costs and more state aid helped the balance sheets. But property owners can't pay what they don't have. So far, the tax cap has begun the process of seeing to it that they won't have to.