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Outlook grim for tax cap bill

Measure not likely to come up for vote this session

Wednesday, June 11, 2008
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— Gov. David Paterson’s program bill to stop school districts from raising property taxes more than 4 percent a year appears dead in the water this legislative session.

The bill seems unlikely to pass either the Senate or Assembly. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, deflected questions about Paterson’s bill Tuesday, complaining that the media has devoted insufficient attention to Senate bills that he said would control taxes and spending.

Dan Weiller, chief spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said the speaker is concerned about ensuring that schools have adequate resources to educate children. He said there was nothing new since a noncommittal June 2 Silver statement responding to the Commission on Property Tax Relief’s report, and declined to say whether Paterson’s bill would come to the floor of the Assembly.

The commission, chaired by Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, recommended a tax cap, along with a “circuit breaker” giving property tax relief to lower-income homeowners, and cost-control measures. Paterson’s bill deals just with the tax cap. He and Suozzi said the circuit-breaker would not work well without the cap.

The strength of the opposition to the Paterson bill could be seen at a news conference Tuesday, where a coalition including the New York State United Teachers union, the state School Boards Association, organizations representing school administrators, the state Parent Teachers Association and other educational groups came out against it. NYSUT has already started running radio ads making their case.

Alan Lubin, a NYSUT vice president, said the bill would mean “the end of public education as we know it,” and “decimate the funds going into our schools. … Don’t destroy our schools,” he urged.

Others at the news conference said the cap would undermine educational quality and reverse recent progress toward equity. PTA President Maria DeWald asked why the cap would apply just to schools, and not to other governmental entities that levy property taxes. “Haven’t the schools been far more responsible than other forms of government?” she asked.

Fuel and special educations costs drive up budgets, she said, and if a tax cap were passed, “The PTA can’t live with the resultant cuts in other programs.”

The Suozzi commission is slated to address special education costs in its final report, due in December. It did include cost-cutting measures in its preliminary report, including revising the Taylor Law governing public employee unions. The commission proposed revising the law to deny teachers automatic pay increases when they are working under the terms of an expired contract. Paterson has not taken a position on that part of the report.

Nor has Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, R-Schenectady. In fact, Tedisco, like Bruno and Silver, has yet to take a firm position on Paterson’s program bill, although he was previously a vocal advocate of a tax cap. Joshua Fitzpatrick, spokesman for the Assembly Republicans, said they will discuss the issue today in conference.

Suozzi conceded that the cap may not be passed this legislative session, which is scheduled to end June 23.

“We all know it’s very hard to move this in Albany,” he said. “It’s like turning around the Titanic.”

But he said there is “a groundswell of people who are upset about property taxes. You don’t have to manufacture that.” It’s not an issue like campaign finance reform, he said, which only a few people care about, but rather “It’s the type of thing which people will march in the streets about.” Suozzi said he expects that public pressure will at some point persuade legislative leaders to enact meaningful property tax relief.

Opponents of the tax cap, Suozzi said, “have grown accustomed to the status quo.” But he said he respects the intelligence and ability of Silver and Bruno, and has discussed the issue with them. “They’ve both said they want to do something about property taxes,” he said. “… They know this is a real issue.”

Suozzi led the bipartisan Fix Albany campaign before running for governor in 2006, and being crushed by Eliot Spitzer in the Democratic primary. At that time, Spitzer opposed a tax cap, but he changed his mind last year and named Suozzi to head the commission. After Spitzer’s resignation in March, Paterson has embraced as governor more fiscally conservative positions than he had previously been known for, including support for the Suozzi commission.

 
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