Editorial: Albany must deliver real tax relief, not gimmickry

02/09/2012 7:00 AM |

FILE PHOTO | The state capitol in Albany.

State lawmakers have a big challenge ahead of them. And politically, it may not be pretty, because it will involve taking on the same unions that often help them get elected. The unions have the money, power and influence to destroy political leaders. And the pols really don’t want to mess with them. But this time they’re going to have to.

And all to fix a mess of Albany’s own making.

State senators and assemblymen were all smiles last year on the day New York State enacted a 2 percent year-to-year tax levy cap, proclaiming that New York’s historically high property taxes would finally be held in check thanks to this landmark legislation.

That was the easy thing to do and, as is often true of taking the path of least resistance, it just led to bigger headaches down the road. The harder thing to do, had lawmakers truly wanted to curb government spending, would have been to get public school teacher and administrator salaries, as well as the massive, five- and six-figure payouts many of them receive upon retiring, back into the realm of what’s normal for middle-income earners. Something is out of whack when the salaries of police and teachers set the income standard in middle-class neighborhoods.

Indeed, compensation packages for all government workers in New York State — sick day accumulations and payouts, incentive packages, medical benefits, overtime gimmicks, step and salary increases — should all be re-examined — if not for current employees, which could lead to lawsuits that might overturn the efforts, then for new hires. At least then there will be some light at the end of the tunnel.

Lawmakers should never even have considered passing this 2 percent tax increase cap without an accompanying public worker compensation overhaul. The legislation is fundamentally flawed, because when teacher salaries and health and other benefits rise yearly at a rate several times greater than 2 percent, that means districts without hefty reserves have one true option to stay under the cap: lay off faculty members. Every single year. Where does it end? Over the years our school districts will be forced to operate using only state aid and the tiniest amount of local taxpayer money.

It’s clear a fix is needed. Our representatives in Albany had better roll up their sleeves and address the unintended consequences while there’s still a chance to do so.