Big money

Assemblyman Cahill, tax experts hold forum in New Paltz

by Mike Townshend
March 31, 2011 11:40 AM | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Last Thursday evening a discussion was held on the topic of financing education through income taxes. Kevin Cahill’s Assembly Bill A447 was commented on by Frank Mauro, Executive Director of The Fiscal Policy Institute and Gerald Benjamin, Director of the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach at SUNY New Paltz. New Paltz School Board member Dan Torres was the moderator. Photo by Lauren Thomas.
A crowd of budget hawks and overburdened taxpayers converged on New Paltz last week to attend a property tax reform featuring Frank Mauro, from the Fiscal Policy Institute, Gerald Benjamin, from SUNY New Paltz’s Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach (CRREO), and state Assemblyman Kevin Cahill.

“What I’m proposing is a statewide income tax” to pay for education, said Cahill (D-Kingston).

The assemblyman used the forum to stump for two bills he’s sponsoring: the 21st Century Schools Act and the Equity in Education Act. The first law would create a Berger Commission-style group to look at how public schools could be consolidated and costs cut statewide.

If enacted into law, that group would then issue a report to the full Legislature and governor, giving their recommendations. Cahill said he thought the old school district lines drawn up in the 1950s might be a likely suspect for change.

“My guess is that there would be some significant changes,” he said.

The Equity in Education bill would start a five-year clock ticking, forcing the state to work to fund schools through income taxes on private citizens and businesses. A memo in support of the bill circulated to the Assembly explains part of the legislator’s reasoning.

“Since 1995, local property tax levies have grown by 60 percent, more than twice the rate of inflation during that period. Most of this growth occurred in the last five years -- when property tax levies increased by 42 percent,” the memo reads. “The cost of education has been the driving force behind these destabilizing increases.”

Cahill said he sees a huge problem with how little the state actually funds public education, despite a tagline in the state constitution saying that Albany must fund education. As it works now, the state should be footing at least one-half of the school bill.

“It’s never been 50 percent in a real long time,” Cahill said, adding that the percent of state aid that goes to education usually only makes up 30 percent to 40 percent of the total costs. “The remainder of it is coming from local property taxes.”

Under the Cahill bill, the state would take over educational funding 100 percent. School districts would send their budgets to the education commissioner and the Board of Reagents for approval.

Mauro, with the Fiscal Policy Institute, has himself been advocating for tax reform in the state. Together with a group from Gardiner called Tax Nightmare, Mauro has been lobbying for the state to adopt an Omnibus Bill with a “circuit breaker” for property taxes.

“A lot of us are fighting for a circuit breaker, which is a safety valve on the system,” he said.

A circuit breaker is essentially an income tax surcharge on the state’s richest residents, which would alleviate the taxes for the working and middle classes.

“I think that Kevin’s legislation goes in the right direction,” Mauro said, but adding that he didn’t necessarily agree with every word. “The basic idea is good.”

Mauro said he thought the state should take over the cost of public education in a complete way, but he would like to see the work begun under Gov. Eliot Spitzer on the Contract for Excellence legislation continue. That law, which would have targeted schools with struggling students, slowed to a halt after the prostitution scandal brought the state government to halt in 2008.

If resources are doled out to the schools, the state should have a way to monitor academic progress, the policy wonk said. SUNY’s Benjamin agreed.

“Accountability requires some measure,” he said, adding that he felt Cahill’s bill could benefit from some way to measure student’s progress.

As for the assemblyman, he didn’t like that too much. He said he’s talked to a lot of teachers, superintendents and principals who feel that No Child Left Behind-style tests made their jobs harder.

“We’re not going to give you a little piece of paper to bring home and have your mommy sign,” Cahill said of the idea of adding performance measures.

Mauro also said he felt that the Cahill bill’s goal of switching over to income tax for education funding in only five years was a bit ambitious. “I’m not sure if it can be done over five years,” he said.

Benjamin said that New Paltz was a great example of a community that had had enough of high property taxes, citing the failure to renovate New Paltz Middle School as an example.

“The property tax has become so burdensome in this community that they’ve rejected it,” he said, adding that the middle school renovation in itself wasn’t a bad idea and that people likely rejected it not for its lack of merit but out of pure sticker shock.

“There’s a constitutional obligation in New York State to provide education,” Benjamin explained, adding that courts had sided with people who sued the state for not living up to that educational mandate several times.

Benjamin said he had doubts about Cahill’s education bill, saying that it could have unintended consequences.

“The growth of income tax is based on the growth of the economy, which is influenced by income taxation,” he said. Or in other words, tax the rich too much and they’ll jump ship and leave the state, leaving average New Yorkers in the lurch.

If Cahill’s bill did pass, it would shift roughly $16 billion or $17 billion in tax revenue to a new method of collection. “I’m not asking that we raise new revenue. I’m asking that we raise the same revenue in a better way,” he said.

Gioia Shebar, with Tax Nightmare, told the panelists that she felt property taxes had created turmoil in New York.

“People have turned against education,” she said. “The state is going to go up in flames … When the hell are we going to get some action?”

Realistically, changing the way that New York State funds public education will take some time, Assemblyman Cahill said.

While he said he felt that members of the Assembly were warming up to his bill and signing on, there was still more work to do.

“I don’t want to kid anybody. It’s not realistic to think it’s going to get passed this year,” he said about the Equity in Education bill.

Other people in the crowd used their time at the microphone to point out that while the state negotiated, real people were getting their houses foreclosed on and facing real challenges.

“While we have these conversations, people are losing their homes,” said Susan Zimet, a county legislator from New Paltz. Zimet is also involved in advocating for property tax reform along with Tax Nightmare and Mauro.

When pressed by Mauro, Cahill said he would support a circuit breaker bill as a temporary relief measure until his education bill could face a vote.

David Dukler, of Gardiner, said he felt that New York State’s laws definitely favored the rich and that change should happen.

“I don’t think that anybody in this room would disagree that massive accumulation of wealth is undemocratic,” Dukler said.

Along with the idea of property tax reform, and just the Great Recession in general, a popular idea has been to increase taxes on the rich. That idea could have some strange consequences, said CRREO’s Benjamin.

“We should tax so that we meet the needs of the people in this society, and we should tax equitably,” he said. Taxing too much could drive businesses away, which would in turn hurt workers. The consequences need to be fully understood before changes are made.

“We have to think about the range of consequences,” he said. Tax the rich has “become a symbol rather than a policy.”

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