Editorial: Tax cap results feel good — but what happens next?

05/18/2012 7:00 AM |

With the lowest voter turnout in recent history in both the Riverhead and Shoreham-Wading River school districts, the only logical conclusion is — as was pointed out in last week’s editorial — that the state’s tax levy cap has made voting on school budgets an even less relevant exercise than before, providing the given district’s proposal stays within the cap.

Taxpayers can delight that their tax bills won’t be jumping by big numbers over the next few years.

But what about in the long run?

This year, the Riverhead district had to cut $3.2 million from what would have been a rollover budget from this school year to stay within the 2 percent cap on year-to-year tax levy increases. Shoreham-Wading River had to transfer $3.75 million from its reserves fund. Having just one contested school board seat also contributed to low voter turnout. Not many people seek election just to cut personnel and programs for their neighbors’ children, hence the lack of competitive school races. With fewer and fewer people throwing their hat in the ring for school board, the quality of candidates could deteriorate.

The elephant in the room — the huge problem with this tax cap legislation — is that teacher compensation and health benefits rise from year to year at a rate higher than 2 percent, never mind the cost of heating and cooling the schools or running buses.

State lawmakers this year enacted state pension reform legislation, which was scaled down from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s initial proposal as legislators sought to curry favor with powerful labor unions. But pension costs don’t count toward the cap.

To make this cap legislation work, our lawmakers in Albany must stop paying lip service to unfunded mandates and overhaul the flawed system of union contract negotiations and arbitration that results in a proliferation of ballooning salaries and benefits.

There’s no binding arbitration for teachers, but in seeking to resolve contract disputes, fact-finders appointed through the state’s Public Employees Relations Board often look to the wages and benefits offered in neighboring districts in suggesting new contracts.

It’s a vicious cycle for the tax-burdened residents, especially on Long Island.

But of course, state and local tax issues cannot be blamed solely on government workers. Reductions in school aid — and thus, rising local tax levies — are directly tied to falling revenue in Albany. New York State tax reform advocates claim $1 billion can be raised by closing corporate tax loopholes. Even if the figure amounted to half that, it’s potentially a lot of money that could help restore state aid numbers and mitigate the local property tax burden. This should be the next issue to which state lawmakers turn their attention.

Staring down powerful unions and corporate lobbyists is tough, but it must be done if the state and its people are to truly prosper.

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