When I listen to politicians in Albany debate property taxes, I am reminded of a famous quote from T.S. Eliot, who said, “Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.” The rush to make New York’s flawed and undemocratic property tax cap permanent is an example of something that started with the best of intentions, but has led to cruel outcomes.
I understand the goal. I am a taxpayer. I also am president of a union that represents workers in every community of this state. I spend much of my time on the road, listening to the concerns of our members and the people we serve. Nobody wants to pay one dime more in taxes than is absolutely necessary.
At the same time, as an educator and union leader I believe we have to be realistic about what it takes to help students succeed and communities thrive. It all starts with strong teachers working in safe and supportive conditions. That is why I have fought for decades for great public schools that can serve the diverse needs of our students.
Long Island communities — like many across New York — face tough choices, none more challenging than how to balance the need to invest in our futures without overtaxing people today. This is why we need to take a hard look at real facts about the state’s property tax cap before we rush to make it permanent.
The truth is this: Despite its good intentions, the tax cap has not reduced the tax burden facing many communities. According to the Tax Foundation, in 2014 New York State ranked second in the country in state and local taxes per capita. Today, after years of the tax cap, we’re No. 1 — and not in a good way.
What the tax cap has done is widen the gap in education funding between wealthy and poor school districts. It has denied our state’s poorest school children the educational opportunities provided to those in wealthier districts.
We should not repeat California’s mistake. Instead, New York should replace the temporary cap with something that will actually work.
New York needs a real progressive tax structure that bases local tax bills on a person’s ability to pay, not a person’s property value. Such a system caps a person’s property tax burden at a certain percentage of his or her income. They would receive tax relief for the portion of their bill above that income-based limit. This would mean major savings for low-income households, middle-class families, and homeowners on fixed incomes, such as retirees. It would prevent people from being taxed out of the communities they love, while also funding the schools and public services that made them fall in love with that community in the first place.
New York has taken steps toward properly funding our education. The governor has proposed nearly $1 billion in increased aid for the coming year. Unfortunately, that falls well short of the $2.2 billion increase public education advocates say is needed just to keep pace with current needs. A property tax cap only exacerbates that shortfall.
Some communities have recognized that and voted at the ballot box to override the tax cap. But the 60 percent threshold required to exceed the cap is an undemocratic obstruction for others who otherwise have majority support for an override.
Unfortunately, the illusion of a quick fix is easier than the hard work of real reform. The State Senate has passed a bill making the tax cap permanent. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo included it in his budget proposal.
Fortunately, there is time to get this right. When the governor and legislative leaders sit down at the end of this month to iron out the details of the state budget, hopefully they’ll craft real reform that provides real relief to the people who need it.
Andy Pallotta is the president of New York State United Teachers, a statewide union with members in education, human services and health care.