Tax cap fibs test limits

by Ken Girardin |  | NY Torch

Government unions aren’t letting the facts get in the way of their opposition to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s push for a permanent property tax cap.

Testifying in Albany this month on Cuomo’s FY20 Executive Budget, union leaders made a number of misrepresentations regarding the cap, which since 2011 has slowed the growth of property taxes outside New York City.

Fran Turner, Legislative & Political Action Director for the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), targeted the cap in written testimony:

To make matters worse for local governments, the [governor’s FY 2020 Executive] Budget proposes to permanently extend the property tax cap. While often referred to as a 2 percent cap, the reality is that the cap has been essentially flat since its inception. This has meant that local governments have been unable to raise enough revenue to cover cost increases in energy, health care, or materials and supplies, all costs that are outside of a local government’s control. This one size fits all solution is unfair and impractical if we want our local governments to be able to continue to function and provide the services that residents want and need.

For starters, the cap is not a “one size fits all solution.” Each local government and school district performs its own unique 11- or 12-step cap calculation every year, and on top of that, still has the option to override the result—an option plenty exercise.

Nor has the cap “been essentially flat since its inception.” One of the starting points for tax cap calculation, the inflation-based allowable growth factor, has ranged from 0.12 percent to 2 percent every year. Each locality’s cap rises further to reflect tax base growth, such as new construction. Cap exclusions, meanwhile, have made room for exceptionally large increases in pension costs. In 2013, that exclusion loosened school district tax caps to allow an average of 4.6 percent growth—and never tightened them back up as pension costs dropped back down.  

But when school taxes were previously increasing at an average of 6 percent per year to feed burgeoning personnel costs, anything short of that likely feels “essentially flat.”

Not to be outdone by CSEA, Andrew Pallotta, president of the statewide teachers union New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), also took a misleading shot at the cap:

As I have already mentioned, the two percent tax levy limit for 2019-20 will have serious negative effects on our students and their schools. This year, statewide, school districts will only generate $400 million locally to fund their programing. NYSUT urges you to reject the proposal in the executive budget to make the tax cap permanent. Similar legislation recently passed the Senate. That said, eliminating or amending the tax cap continues to be a priority for NYSUT.

Leave it to NYSUT to apply the modifier “only” to a number as large as $400 million. But more importantly, that figure was the amount of additional revenue districts hoped to collect, not the full amount. For New York homeowners and businesses already paying $21.3 billion in property taxes to support the best-funded schools (and best-paid teachers) in the country, an added $400 million will amount to real money.

Pallotta’s tone-deaf reference to “only” $400 million speaks volumes about the need to keep the tax cap, and make it permanent.

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- Ken Girardin is the Policy Analyst at the Empire Center for Public Policy.