Suozzi: Let’s go after unfunded mandates
Tax cap chair expects proposal by May 15
By Marc Humbert
The commission Gov. Eliot Spitzer created to recommend a cap on school property taxes must find a way to limit mandated costs facing school districts if the plan is to have any chance of adoption, according to Thomas Suozzi, the chairman of the commission.
“If you cap the revenues and the mandated costs continue to grow then it’s not sustainable,” Suozzi told On Board in a telephone interview from his Nassau County Executive’s office.
Suozzi also said he expects the commission to be ready with legislation to be presented to the state Legislature by May 15, more than six months before Spitzer’s December deadline. Under the timetable laid out in an Executive Order, the commission was scheduled to present the governor and the state Legislature with draft recommendations in May and issue a final report in December.
Suozzi said he wants to make the tax cap issue part of this year’s election debate.
“I’m not going to put it off until December, after the election,” he vowed.
In November, all 212 seats in the state Senate and Assembly go to voters. That, said Suozzi, could help him get his proposal adopted.
“People are pretty upset about their property taxes,” he said. “It’s pretty easy to sell to the voters if someone is ignoring their plight on an issue like this.”
Suozzi told On Board that the commission will conduct “an open and honest process” as it develops its plan.
As part of that, Suozzi said he is intentionally reaching out to many groups because of the complexity of the issue and the difficulty he faces in getting agreement politically for a tax cap proposal.
“It’s impossible to do without having the school boards, the school superintendents, teachers, Democrats, Republicans, upstate, downstate – everybody,” he said.
One charge of the commission is to investigate the underlying causes of the ever-escalating costs of running local schools. The commission staff has reached out to NYSSBA for data, said Timothy G. Kremer, NYSSBA executive director.
The commission, which began public hearings earlier this month, has requested that NYSSBA put together a series of white papers detailing what is driving up the bottom line of school budgets and what can be done about it. Five more public hearings are planned across the state.
The commission has asked NYSSBA for information on such topics as pension costs, contractually negotiated expenses and the unfunded mandates imposed on districts by the state.
“One misperception that we need to correct is that locally elected school boards are not good at curbing spending and therefore need an external requirement to provide discipline,” said NYSSBA President Wayne Schlifke. “The fact is that health care premiums, fuel costs and special education requirements make school districts’ expenses rise much more than the consumer price index. That’s the real culprit.”
The only way a tax cap would make sense if it was accompanied by a package of reforms such as removing unfunded mandates and capping the local portion of expenses such as special education, health care and pension contributions, Schlifke said. In such a system, the state would have to agree to pay for costs beyond the expenses cap, he said. This is how the state splits Medicaid costs with counties, he noted.
After the commission’s first hearing, held Feb. 12, Suozzi told On Board, “It’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be. The fact that people are at least conversing is a good start.”
Nonetheless, Suozzi and the commission face opposition. New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has declined to participate in the hearing process and has begun a publicity campaign portraying students wearing mortarboards. The union’s “The Right Kind of Cap” campaign argues that tax caps can harm education.
The Educational Conference Board is also opposing tax cap proposals. The group includes NYSSBA and NYSUT, as well as the Conference of Big 5 City School Districts, the state Association of School Business Officials, the state Congress of Parents and Teachers, the state Council of School Superintendents and the School Administrators Association of New York State.
David Little, NYSSBA’s director of governmental relations, told the commission that NYSSBA had no problem with the goal of holding down tax increases. “Despite the fact that last spring 98.2 percent of all New York state school district budgets were approved by local voters, we agree with your supposition that local property taxes are excessive,” Little testified.
To avoid harming public education, the commission should recommend changes in laws such as the Triborough Amendment, which enables teachers to receive annual salary raises without a contract in place. Little suggested freezing salaries until a new contract is agreed upon.
“If you want a cap, it should be on the right bottle: costs,” Little said.
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