The New York State tax cap appears to be more of a helmet. Of five school budgets that failed in voting Tuesday in Erie and Niagara counties, two had tried to bust the limit on tax increases, one by nearly 10 percent. They went down in flames.
In Clarence, where the proposed tax rate increase was a whopping 9.8 percent, a record turnout of voters rejected the budget in a lopsided vote of 4,801 against to 3,431 in favor. Lewiston-Porter voters turned down a proposed 5.5 percent tax hike, with 939 votes for and 1,153 against.
What that means is this: The tax cap, pushed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in his first year in office, is working. As important as public education is, school taxes are also the most onerous of property taxes and, even in wealthy communities like Clarence, there are limits to what residents are willing to pay.
That is true today and that truth will only become more solidified as the population of Western New York ages and an increasing share of voters will be relying on incomes that are fixed or otherwise pinched. And that means that the tax cap, alone, isn’t enough.
Most New Yorkers, we suspect, don’t want to see music, languages, sports and other valuable courses and extracurricular activities curtailed or abandoned. Yet that is the clear threat as budgets come increasingly under pressure from a field of taxpayers who can’t afford their costs. If nothing is done to ease the cost curve, teacher layoffs are inevitable. That threatens core instruction and, ultimately, the ability of students to learn and, hence, to succeed in an ever-more-competitive world.
Those economic threats come mainly from the growing burden of pension costs and a state labor law that tilts too far toward unions and away from the taxpayers who foot the bills. In Tuesday’s elections, voters were faced with higher taxes even though cuts were made to programs, partly because of state aid that remains lower than three years ago together with steep increases in the costs of teacher pensions.
That paints a grim future for education funding in New York, and it requires short- and long-term responses. In the immediate future, the state needs to help districts cope with the costs of pensions. It would be wrong and likely impossible to change the terms of the pensions, but this is a runaway train that will flatten education in New York.
Over the longer term, the state needs to reform the Taylor Law, which governs labor in the public sector. The point shouldn’t be to stick it to unions or workers, but to level the playing field in a way that encourages honest bargaining over contracts. As the law is written, unions are often incentivized not to bargain. The unions will fight any change in the Taylor Law, given its benefits to them, but ultimately, the change will have to be made.
In addition, the state needs to continue working on its economic environment. For as long as younger workers believe their opportunities for success lie elsewhere, the remaining, aging base of taxpayers will be left to bear a cost they will reject in ever-greater numbers. New York needs to be adding to its tax base, not driving it away.
For today, it is fair to say that the tax cap is doing its job and, for that, Cuomo and the Legislature deserve credit. Plainly, though, education funding remains on a troubled path.