The 60% red herring

by E.J. McMahon |  | NY Torch

Gov. Cuomo’s proposed 2 percent property tax cap could only be overridden by a super-majority of more than 60 percent of school district voters.  Would this pose an insurmountable obstacle to supporters of higher taxes, starving schools of desperately needed funding?

Cap opponents such as New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) imply as much, asserting in recent Senate testimony that the 60 percent override threshold “would erode democracy — because 41 percent of the electorate could veto a proposition supported by the majority of voters.” NYSUT representatives repeated that argument at today’s Assembly hearing in Albany on the tax cap.

But school district budget voting results tell a different story.  Of the 3.5 million votes cast on school budget propositions in the last five years, most of which called for tax levies substantially higher than 2 percent, the average “yes” share came to … 61 percent. In 2010, a tough economic year when 92 percent of budgets propositions were nonetheless approved on the first go-round, the vote in favor of district spending proposals averaged 59.8 percent. In 625 districts for which initial results were reported by the state, 434 budgets passed with more than 60 percent of the vote. The average proposed tax levy increase: 3.2 percent.

This does not mean that tax cap overrides will pass as easily as budget propositions.  But it does undermine efforts by NYSUT and its fellow travelers to portray the cap as a “devastating” assault on The Children.  As noted in the Empire Center’s new report, “The Case for a Cap”:

Local school finance in New York now effectively rests on a baseline assumption of 4 percent “contingency” spending growth (or 120 percent of inflation, whichever is lower). The issue in annual budget referendums is the extent to which districts will be allowed to spend above the minimum level. The tax cap would shift the focus from spending to taxes, forcing school officials to budget on the assumption that there can be no increase in the district tax levy without voter approval.

If anything, Cuomo’s cap would make school voting more democratic than the current process, which allows district officials the fallback position of simply imposing a state-mandated “contingency” spending level, along with the taxes necessary to support it, whether voters approve or not.

Of course, the cap also inevitably will put pressure on districts to restrain the growth in teacher compensation costs — which explains NYSUT’s position.

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- E.J. McMahon is the Research Director at the Empire Center for Public Policy.