They’re rioting in the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain and . . . Madison, Wisconsin?! As the Arab world disrupts into demands for human rights, democracy and an end to dictatorships, America is facing a monumental crisis of its own.
Fortunately, it’s not total political disruption, as our democracy remains strong in spite of our differences, but we do face economic challenges that are doing their part in splitting us apart.
The fiscal crisis is everywhere, and no small economic upturns have come close to solving the budget deficits faced by all segments of government, from federal to state to local. It’s a seemingly unsolvable menace that is beginning to erode the stability of parts of our nation.
Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, is proposing to eliminate the collective bargaining rights of public employees, causing some Democratic legislators to flee the state rather than vote on the proposal!
And the pot of discontent is also beginning to stir at a faster rate here in New York and in our local cities and municipalities as well. With demonstrators beginning to march in our own capital in Albany, and with cities throughout the state, like Schenectady, facing the same difficulties financially, I actually am beginning to worry how we’re going to get through this.
With the federal deficit in the trillions, state deficits in the billions and those of localities in the millions of dollars, there don’t seem to be any easy answers.
Like most of us, I have some opinions but certainly don’t have the solutions. Obviously, less spending and more revenue is the only way to get closer to balanced budgets — ah, the good old days of President Clinton — but how we go about that is beginning to split us in some fearful ways. And the rhetoric continues to be pretty heated in spite of the “Pax Arizona” that briefly took place after the shootings there.
We all know the issues: health care, education, pension reform, deficit spending, tax reform, layoffs, the expense of foreign policy and war — but it seems all we can do is argue about the solutions.
And many of what might appear to be solutions I think are dangerously misguided. I would like to address three of the most common quick fixes here in New York and in our city and the fallacies underlying them:
-- Capping Property taxes
While many think this will give us some relief on the local tax level and keep some reins on the beast of rising property taxes, it is not at all as attractive as it may sound.
First of all, if the cap is set at, say, 2 percent a year, don’t think that it will ever be less than 2 percent a year. School districts and municipalities will always use all that they can get, or bank any extra in reserve for the future. Many districts have already had to tap heavily into their reserves.
We won’t see a 1.5 percent or a 1.8 percent; it is our nature to spend what is available. Now take 2 percent a year for 5 years, and your taxes will have gone up more than 10 percent in those five years as the 2 percent will be an increase on each previous year, which already includes the 2 percent. Actuarially, it multiplies, making it even more than 10 percent. Also, the poorer school districts will suffer the most as their 2 percent is a percentage of a lot less money than the wealthier school districts.
A much fairer way would be to stop funding school districts with property taxes altogether.
This would provide those residents with high property assessments, but low or fixed income, some real relief. A better idea would be to fund school districts on income taxes, not property taxes. One’s home isn’t always a reflection of what he can afford to pay.
-- Repealing the Triborough Amendment
This amendment to the Taylor Law passed in 1982 keeps existing public contracts in place until a new contract is negotiated. The argument in favor of repeal is that the amendment ensures step raises, particularly in teachers’ contracts, thereby giving raises anyway and reducing the desire on the part of the public unions to negotiate fairly.
What is often left out of the argument to repeal is the second part of the amendment: In exchange for keeping the old contract in place, the public unions agreed to no labor strikes.
Repealing the amendment would create the possibility of losing this very important piece. A teacher strike is not a pleasant experience for the students, the teachers or the community. Plus, what would be put in place of this agreement? No contracts at all? No negotiations at all?
To extol the repeal of the amendment sounds just tough enough to appeal to the anti-public employee part of our population, but I’ve heard of no fair-minded compromise to take its place.
-- “Education Reform Now”
Perhaps you’ve seen the advertisements on TV sponsored by this unknown group calling for teacher layoffs (if there are to be teacher layoffs) based on merit and not seniority.
First of all, we don’t have a merit system in New York, so I don’t know what they’re basing that on. That would entail negotiating a clause on merit in every school district in New York, or some fantasy new law passed by the Legislature, which would have to negate local contracts. An impossible task.
Second, what do you imagine the results might be? If you were a school board in dire financial straits and you could lay off teachers on some imaginary merit system, who do you think would be the first to go? The senior teacher making $60,000 or the newer teacher making $30,000?
The commercial makes it sound like a noble effort to keep the best teachers, no matter how long their seniority, but it is really quite a lame argument for saving money by filling our schools with novice teachers and eliminating the more experienced and quite often most accomplished ones. There certainly are those who are “born to teach,” but no one is born . . . an excellent teacher. That takes time and experience . . . sometimes called seniority.
So, as we discuss, argue and bicker over how to save our troubled economy, let’s be careful what we wish for. We might just get it and the repercussions might not be good.
Anthony Frank lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.