ALBANY – The state’s property tax cap violates the constitution by perpetuating funding inequities between rich and poor school districts and violates “one person, one vote" protections, the state’s largest teachers union claims in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The New York State United Teachers union is asking a state court in Albany to overturn the 2011 law that caps the annual growth of local property taxes at about 2 percent, unless 60 percent of local voters agree to tax beyond the cap.
“In challenging the constitutionality of the tax cap, we are fighting for that principle, just as we are fighting for the democratic principles of ‘one person, one vote’ and for the right of citizens, through local control of their schools, to determine for themselves how much they want to spend on their own community’s schools,’’ NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi said in a statement.
The union, which has seen hundreds of its members laid off since the tax cap and economic pressures have forced schools to cut costs, filed its lawsuit in state Supreme Court in Albany this morning.
By setting caps on how much a district can raise in property tax revenues, the tax cap law, NYSUT alleges, keeps in place “funding inequities’’ between wealthy districts and those that serve low-income families in urban and rural districts.
The lawsuit alleges seven different causes of action, including arguing that the provision allowing 60 percent of a district’s voters to override the cap is unconstitutional. The union during the tax cap debate at the Capitol had sought to have any override attempts work on a simple majority basis – 50 percent plus one vote – in annual school budget votes. The union says the 60 percent rule means that someone wanting to override the cap has only two-thirds the voting power of opponents.
The impact of voter anger over rising taxes, the implementation of the tax cap and a sour economy has led districts across New York to cut student programs and staff positions over the past couple years. Many localities, which are also subject to the tax cap provisions, say they are increasingly feeling fiscal strains in a period of flat-line state aid and limits on how much they can ask local voters to fund state-imposed mandatory costs for expenses like employee pensions and social service programs.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the prime backer of the tax cap, has insisted the property tax program is not a cap, since it does allow local voters to exceed the level if 60 percent of them say so.
“People have a right to go to court. God bless America. God bless our system,’’ Cuomo said. But he defended the tax cap as one of the most important changes his administration has achieved and rejected NYSUT’s claim for more state aid to schools. “The answer can’t always be putting the hand in the pocket of the taxpayers of New York ... The answer that it’s more money, more money, more money, I reject,’’ he added.
The cap is not a straight cap on each homeowner’s property taxes, but rather on the total property tax levy for a district or locality in a given year. There are also spending exceptions to the cap, which means the actual cap can and has gone above the 2 percent level in most communities.
The challenge by the 600,000-member NYSUT, which called the cap “undemocratic,’’ is a serious one because it is a well-funded union with the resources to see the court challenge through to the end. Rejection of the cap by the courts would be a political blow to Cuomo, who is up for re-election next year and who made the tax cap plan one of his signature policy initiatives in his first term.
NYSUT says the state has failed to live up to the decision of an historic school funding lawsuit resolved in 2007 in which Albany agreed to spend an additional $7 billion on “low-wealth’’ districts. NYSUT said the 2013 budget plan by Cuomo spends about $300 million on public schools than the 2008 level.
While NYSUT wants the state to increase state aid to schools as a way to help districts rely less on property taxpayers, districts over the years have said NYSUT has made the situation worse by opposing certain state mandates that drive up expenses for schools.
In its legal challenge, NYSUT says funding differences between schools is attributable to assessed property values that vary dramatically across the state. It says the way the tax cap is structured local control of school financing is undermined, a protection the state’s highest court has upheld in past cases. It says the cap is also flawed because wealthier districts can afford to break the tax cap, leading to further inequities between rich and poor communities.
NYSUT argues the law treats districts differently than many towns, villages and cities. While voters get a crack at the school district funding plans, NYSUT said many localities have only a mayor or supervisor and four council members, who can exceed the cap by a 3-2 vote; NYSUT says that burden is easier to meet than the 60 percent level by voters in a district-wide budget vote, thereby violating equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions.
The union also calls illegal the tax cap law’s “poison pill’’ that sets spending levels if 60 percent override results are not achieved in two separate votes by taxpayers – a provision NYSUT says has a “chilling effect’’ on voters who want to spend beyond the cap’s level.
An upstate business group that helped push for enactment of the tax cap sharply criticized NYSUT’s new lawsuit.
“Once again, NYSUT is showing its disdain for taxpayers. New York state continues to have some of the nation’s highest property taxes, and the tax cap was the first step toward addressing this crisis,’’ said Brian Sampson, executive director of Unshackle Upstate. He noted 95 percent of the state’s schools stayed within the cap level in its first round of school budget votes last year.