Expect a lot of talk in Albany this election year about how New York’s sky-high property taxes are sucking the lifeblood out of our economy, turning the Empire State into the Vampire State.
But don’t take any of it seriously until some brave politician steps forward and speaks the plain truth: The most effective way to control soaring property taxes – maybe the only effective way – is to cap them.
That’s what Massachusetts did in 1980 with Proposition 2-1/2, which has worked wonders for the Bay State. It could work here, too, if only the right leader has the chutzpah to champion this powerful idea.
Gov. Spitzer has a chance to be that guy. Calling for a tax cap in his State of the State speech next week is just the sort of bold move that could help him get his mojo back.
If Spitzer doesn’t pick up the wooden stake, maybe Senate GOP leader Joe Bruno will – and, in the process, help fend off the governor’s campaign to flip the state Senate into the Democratic column.
Then again, Spitzer and Bruno could both wimp out under pressure from the education establishment. If so, New Yorkers will go on paying property taxes 54% higher than the national average. Businesses will go on picking friendlier states to set up shop. And young people will go on fleeing to more affordable climes.
Massachusetts used to be right up there with us at the top of the tax charts – until the voters revolted. The proposition they passed capped local tax increases at no more than 2.5% a year, unless voters gave permission for more in a special referendum.
The state’s ranking in terms of state and local taxes plunged from No. 2 in 1980 to a modest 28th today. It’s “Taxachusetts” no more. (We’re No. 1.)
Lest anyone think school kids suffered unduly, Massachusetts’ test scores are currently among the very highest in the nation.
This success story inspired three out of four candidates for governor last year to endorse some form of cap on school taxes in New York. Spitzer was the odd man out – but, to his credit, has said he would reconsider if other strategies failed.
Well, the results are in. The falsely named School Tax Reduction program, or STAR, pioneered by Gov. George Pataki and expanded by Spitzer, partially rebates school taxes forhomeowners. It doesn’t “reduce” taxes at all, just shifts the burden – and rates are higher than ever today.
Meanwhile, businesses see no benefit, even though the property tax is the biggest tax they pay.
Ramping up school aid to local districts hasn’t worked, either. Spitzer pushed through a record $1.7 billion increase in state education spending last year, and what happened? School districts hiked property taxes by an average of 6%, or more than twice theinflation rate.
Because New York City has an income tax and its property taxes are relatively low, it would see little or no direct benefit from a cap. But city dwellers would still come out ahead as state lawmakers stop recklessly approving pension sweeteners and other mandates that drive up costs for everyone.
“They now get the best of both worlds,” the Manhattan Institute’s E.J. McMahon said of Albany pols. “They get to pander to their friends in the teachers unions, and they don’t have to pay the consequences.” A tax cap, he said, “suddenly makes the Legislature confront the consequences of its actions.”
And this isn’t some radical right-wing idea. Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver sponsored a tax cap back in 1995. Unfortunately, the biggest open proponent of the tax cap these days is Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, a Republican who lacks the clout to make it happen.
So, New Yorkers won’t see real relief from property taxes and spiraling spending until top officials such as Spitzer, Bruno and Silver get the guts to back a cap. Everything else is just talk.
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