Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo delivers a state of the state...

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo delivers a state of the state and budget message at SUNY Old Westbury. (Feb. 14, 2013) Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

The New York State United Teachers filed a lawsuit Wednesday to overturn the 2 percent property tax cap that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has called a "historic" reform that protects taxpayers from out-of-control spending.

The 600,000-member union in a statement said the July 2011 property tax cap was unconstitutional, partly because it has perpetuated sharp disparities between schools in rich and impoverished areas.

The cap impairs the taxpayers' ability to exercise "substantial local control, a concept enshrined in the state Constitution and which the Court of Appeals has ruled is the 'only rational basis' for allowing unequal distribution of state aid to schools," the union said.

Cuomo, at a Bronx news conference Wednesday, told reporters: "It's a question of balance; we want the best education system on the planet."

However, noting that education aid would rise about 4 percent this year, Cuomo said New Yorkers, along with people across the country, were "suffering in a very tough economy."

He added: "I'm not going to New Yorkers today to ask for tax increase after tax increase."

Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), a strong supporter of the cap, said its passage "sent an unmistakable message to New Yorkers who were drowning in property taxes and finding it difficult to pay their bills. . . . While it's clear that this lawsuit has no merit, Senate Republicans are determined to protect the property tax cap for New Yorkers and their families."

The union said it filed the 52-page lawsuit Wednesday in State Supreme Court in Albany. Eight parents, half of whom are teachers, with 14 children, who live from New Paltz to Long Island's Comsewogue school district, joined the union in bringing the suit.

New York State, along with a number of others from Texas to New Jersey, has been struggling to comply with court orders demanding that it equalize funding between school districts in poorer cities or rural areas and ones in wealthier, often suburban communities.

In 2007, New York State agreed to increase education aid by $7 billion after the state's top court, the Court of Appeals, ruled that it had violated the state constitution by failing to provide pupils, especially in New York City, with a "sound, basic" education.

The lawsuit contends the state still owes $5.4 billion under that accord. However, Cuomo, at a late afternoon Albany news conference, said the state had fully funded its obligation under the settlement.

The lawsuit also said that by requiring 60 percent of the voters to approve spending more than the 2 percent cap, the measure had violated the constitution, because it conflicts with the principle of "one person, one vote."

The vote of an individual who approves of spending more than the cap allows is only worth two-thirds of the vote of an individual who rejects the extra dollars, it said.

Richard C. Iannuzzi, the union president, told reporters in Albany that the fundamental issue was not property taxes, but the unequal funding.

"It's very clear that the wealth gap and the inequitable funding exacerbate the achievement gap," said Iannuzzi, who taught in Central Islip for 34 years.

The union waited until now to file the lawsuit because it wanted to see how taxpayers voted when asked to approve school budgets that exceeded the cap, he said. A union spokesman said 53 districts tried to override the cap and 34 succeeded on the first vote. Three districts overrode on the second vote.

James S. March, president of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, said his group is aware of the need for property tax relief. "However, when enacting the school levy cap, Gov. Cuomo and the state legislature promised significant mandate relief and sufficient state aid to make up the shortfalls in property tax revenues. To date they have delivered neither and as a result, Long Islanders are beginning to experience the negative impact on their schools," he said.


Challenging the tax cap


The New York State United Teachers' lawsuit contending the 2 percent property tax cap is unconstitutional is based on two main points:

That it has perpetuated sharp disparities between schools in rich and poor areas.

That requiring the approval of 60 percent of school district voters to break the 2 percent cap conflicts with the principle of "one person, one vote."

The tax cap law limits the year-to-year tax levy increase by the more than 10,000 local governments and special taxing districts across the state to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. The cap can be overridden by a 60 percent majority vote of governing bodies or, in the case of school districts, of eligible voters.

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months