Long Island school leaders are fretting about what is projected to be another lean year for the state tax cap, and when school leaders fret, politicians worry, too.
The result is a quietly growing movement to change the property-tax cap law and loosen the taxpayers’ purse strings significantly — and that’s a change that can’t be allowed to happen.
From 1982 to 2011, school taxes in New York increased at a rate of 6 percent a year, growing from $3.5 billion to $19.7 billion, or more than three times faster than inflation. It was in that environment of out-of-control hikes that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was able to pass legislation in 2011 to limit property tax hikes to 2 percent a year or the rate of inflation, whichever was lower. With some exemptions, budgets could exceed the cap only with 60 percent or more of the vote.
The cap was set at 2 percent for the first school year it was in place, 2012-13. But since then, inflation has been practically nil, largely thanks to lower gasoline and heating costs. This school year’s tax cap was 0.12 percent. The 2017-18 cap on school tax hikes will not be set until January, but the limit for municipalities has been declared at 0.68 percent, and State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli predicts the school limit won’t be much different.
DiNapoli also warns that Albany might not have enough revenue to keep up its recent record of generous annual increases in aid to schools, although Cuomo is presenting a rosy picture, and state law says that aid will increase at least as fast as personal income in the state.
It is the rate of inflation and personal income growth that must limit how fast school spending can increase. No descriptions of need or pleas from education leaders or unions can change the simple fact that school spending cannot sustainably increase faster than prices and the earnings of taxpayers. And for all the years when property taxes grew faster than inflation, the income of the median taxpayer did not.
Most of education spending is on payroll, and it’s actually preferable for worker income to increase faster than inflation; that gap increases prosperity. But that gap is created by productivity increases. It’s an area that education experts say can create huge efficiencies and improvements as new technology is embraced, but which teachers unions and districts often resist.
We see each generation of students more comfortable with technology, constant learning, varieties of stimulus and instant access to information. Experts say the way they learn and relate to education is changing dramatically. We’ll always need great teachers, but how many we need and how they work should change and become more efficient.
There is no shortage of money for education in New York, where an average of $22,000 is spent per student each year, or on Long Island, where it’s $26,000. On Long Island, there is an extraordinary burden: Property taxes are quadruple the national average while house values are only double the national average. Taxpayers cannot face a burden that increases faster than inflation and their ability to pay.
And as Election Day approaches, candidates for the state Assembly and Senate need to assure them they won’t have to.— The editorial board