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EDITORIAL: 'Austerity' budgets get even less real

As little power as voters currently have over school budgets, the State Senate just decided to diminish it even further. By a vote of 56-2, the Senate sneaked language into a bill to allow school districts to add up to 3 percent to their budgets next year, even if voters reject them at the ballot box.

The Senate is making a mockery of the annual school budget vote; the Assembly should refuse to go along. School budgets make up about 70 percent of Long Island's property tax bills - so these increases count.

School budget votes are close to a charade already. If voters say no, schools automatically shift to "austerity" budgets, which sound severe but still allow budget growth capped at about the inflation rate. On top of that, 34 budget items are, by law, exempt from the pressure of the cap, including the biggest pot of money - teachers' and administrators' salaries. What does get cut are the items parents love: buses, sports, art and music. Voters need a real choice on how budgets should be cut.

This year, because we're in a deflationary time, the normal austerity calculation would have resulted in a 0.4 percent decrease next year for schools. That would have meant an even bigger cut to the favorite programs and services - and not to the real cost drivers of salaries and benefits. So, the State Senate - Democrats and Republicans - fixed the formula last week.

The fix is in, and democracy is out. And cynicism about Albany continues to rise. hN


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