All year, it’s nothing but talk from our politicians on their priorities. Education! Taxes! Jobs!
But come April, the rubber meets the road. With an actual budget in print, passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor (usually) on the first of the month, we finally get a chance to see what our representatives actually stand for.
This year’s controversial items are the ever-intertwined issues of taxes and education. Unfortunately, the likely proposals on the table don’t begin to address the underlying issues: our half-baked property tax system and the crushing budgetary vise that is the so-called Gap Elimination Adjustment.
On property taxes, Gov. Cuomo’s current proposal is to freeze them and offer school districts financial assistance from the state’s general fund.
At first glance, this is a good idea. The current property tax system exacerbates the gap between rich and poor districts. Even soon-to-be-Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in 2010, “I think the inequity in education is probably the civil rights issue of our time.”
He was right. Poorer districts are caught in a cycle of perpetual poverty — low property values yielding low-quality schools, which generate a poorly educated class of young people, which in turn lowers the community’s economic potential. And thus the cycle continues.
Ideally, we should replace local property taxes with an increased state income tax, one that’s weighted more toward the wealthy than the non-wealthy. This would allow Albany to send money exactly where it needs to go.
Failing that, we should at least erode the existing link between property taxes and education funding to make any such future effort easier.
But this isn’t the governor’s plan. His proposal: In exchange for a two-year property tax freeze, he’ll make up the gap with money from the general fund — at first. In later years, the aid will be contingent on state-approved cuts or consolidations to local governance.
It gives communities a taste of this sorely needed property tax relief, at the cost of coercing local governments into budget-strangling action they can’t afford. (Note that the property tax cap freeze itself won’t be contingent on anything!)
So, this isn’t a good solution, even for the short term. Instead, any decrease in property taxes should be accompanied by a simple and significant increase in state aid. Such an increase shouldn’t be designed to increase the number of bargaining chips that Cuomo himself holds; it should be designed to get the money where it needs to go.
And actually, there is a great source for all of this money. It’s called the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which has arbitrarily slashed education funding by $8.4 billion since it was introduced in 2010. Initially designed to help solve our budget deficit, it seems to have worked — beyond our wildest dreams! We now have a $2 billion yearly surplus.
It seems obvious, then: We need to reverse the Gap Elimination Adjustment. After all, the deficit is gone! But this, of course, is not likely to happen. It’s crucial to maintaining Cuomo’s message of political transformation: He’s gone from a deficit-cutter to a surplus-grower all in the space of one term. Unfortunately, the cost of this surplus growth is on the kids.
Broadly speaking, the last four years have been simply terrible for education in New York state. This deterioration in New York’s schools means, among other things, fewer advanced placement programs, honors courses and special needs care. It means larger class sizes. It means fewer extracurricular programs that keep kids’ creative minds engaged and provide an outlet (or sanctuary) from dangerous habits.
It means that those who are part of the younger generation of teachers are losing their jobs — tenure, of course, being a separate issue that deserves some serious addressing. And lastly, it means school districts face bankruptcy with few places left to cut.
We did have the chance to address some of these issues. Instead, the governor wishes to avoid them. Now rather than forcing our communities to choose between an unpalatable increase in property taxes and an unbearable series of cuts to schools, Albany wants be swapping out the taxes for community services cuts.
The goal here is obvious: optimize the presentation of Gov. Cuomo’s record. The governor gets to say he cut property taxes, argue that he stuck it to the public sector, and be able to better control (or coerce) local administrations in the meantime.
This will look good to the fiscal conservatives he desperately wants to court to pad his November margins, and won’t cost him many of his supporters on the left, who are either enamored of his social-issues policy or are too afraid of the GOP’s reactionary alternative to jump ship.
Viewed from this perspective, perhaps the past four years haven’t been much of a failure after all.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.