With less than a week before school budget votes are taken, and reports that an overwhelming majority of New York’s school’s are complying with the cap, it is important to look at the whole picture.
Prior to enacting the tax cap we had three variables that added up to a disastrous scenario.
1. New York (and the national) economy was stagnant at best.
2. School districts and local governments were cemented in an unsustainable fiscal situation.
3. The taxpayer “ATM” was maxed out.
Today, 11 months after the tax cap was enacted, our economy is still languishing (and New York was given the poorest economic outlook), school districts and local governments are predominantly complying with the tax cap and New York’s taxpayers are still dealing with the second highest tax burden in the country.
Now, make no mistake, I was and continue to be a loud and strong proponent of the tax cap. It was truly an historic and transformative move by Governor Cuomo and the legislature. But I, and many of my colleagues, never felt that the tax cap was the silver bullet. It needed and continues to require, relief from unfunded mandates. Up to this point, it has not.
An unfunded mandate is a statute or regulation from the state that requires an action from the local government, but provides no funds for schools/local governments to fulfill the requirement. With the tax cap in place, schools/local governments cannot go to you, the taxpayer, for the fiscal resources to fulfill their obligations. So here we sit at an important crossroads.
Today, a joint report from the State School Boards Association and the Association of School Business Offices describes the methods in which our schools are complying with the property tax cap absent the critical unfunded mandate relief they and our local governments need (Full report can be found here). Unsurprisingly it talks about service and staff cuts. But the more important piece of information in this report is the use of reserve funds. School districts are spending the majority of the limited reserves they have to help sustain their level of service for this year. Next year these funds will not be there. Next year the financial situation for our schools will be more complicated. This is why we need action on unfunded mandates now.
This was the impetus behind the creation of the historic coalition of business, school and local government organizations, Let NY Work. We have spent the last eight months advocating for sensible reforms. While we had a victory on the new Tier VI public pension level, we need reforms that provide immediate fiscal relief. Sure, some of the reforms necessary are federal mandates and collective bargaining issues, but others, such as changing our regulations in procurement and looking at archaic rules that lack relevancy today can be done.
With five weeks left in this legislative session, and 12 months left until next year’s school budget vote, the focus needs to remain on finding sensible and necessary solutions to these problems. They will help our communities provide the critical services we need, help our school districts provide an efficient and high level of education to our children and even help our economy recover.