BY CAROLYN THOMPSON
Medina Journal-Register — BUFFALO — New York’s largest teachers union and several parents sued Wednesday to overturn the state’s property tax cap as unconstitutional, contending it widens the gap between rich and poor districts and interferes with local control of schools.
The state Supreme Court lawsuit challenging the 2011 tax cap legislation names Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Education Commissioner John King Jr. and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
“While on its face the tax cap gives the appearance of equality, in effect the tax cap locks in existing inequalities and has a disproportionate, negative impact on the ability of the lower wealth districts and their voters to provide educational opportunity to school children,” according to the lawsuit filed in Albany by New York State United Teachers, along with parents of students in a half-dozen school districts.
The cap, enacted as a step toward controlling property tax rates that are among the highest in the nation, generally restricts districts and local governments from increasing their tax levy by more than 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. Budget proposals that exceed the capped rate need a 60 percent supermajority of votes to pass.
The lawsuit, which challenges only the cap for school districts, argues it takes away districts’ ability to make up for reductions and disparities in state aid at the local level and endangers programming and staffing, even when a majority of a districts’ voters are willing to pay more to save them.
“The state’s undemocratic tax cap is exacerbating glaring inequities in funding while pushing many school districts to the brink of educational and financial insolvency,” NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi said.
The parents who joined the suit have children in districts where a majority, but not a supermajority, of voters favored exceeding the cap to lessen cuts.
“Those districts clearly demonstrated they had a need for greater resources and the voters, by a majority, supported greater resources,” Iannuzzi said. “The outcome was significant reductions in programs and services.”
Cuomo said Wednesday that state education funding went up 4 percent this year and that there have to be limits on what’s asked of taxpayers.
“Property taxes are forcing New Yorkers from their homes,” he said in Albany.
The vast majority of local governments and school districts have stayed within the cap when drafting their budgets, Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said. He called the lawsuit a fiscally irresponsible attempt to undermine progress.
Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos also defended the legislation, saying it had “finally put the brakes on rising property taxes in New York.”
“While it’s clear that this lawsuit has no merit,” Skelos said, “Senate Republicans are determined to protect the property tax cap for New Yorkers and their families.”
Also lining up against the lawsuit were the business groups Unshackle Upstate, the National Federation of Independent Business and the Business Council of New York state.
“We see the cap as an essential protection for both individual and business taxpayers against extremely high and fast-rising property taxes,” Business Council President Heather Briccetti said. “It sends a signal to citizens and business leaders that the state is serious about controlling the cost of government and rebuilding our private sector economy.”
Citizen Action of New York, the Alliance for Quality Education, Campaign for Fiscal Equity and the state AFL-CIO were among backers of the legal challenge, with AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento saying the tax cap “had done nothing but tie the hands of school districts at the exact wrong time.”
The lawsuit asks the court to declare the tax cap, as it applies to public schools, null and void because it violates the New York state and U.S. constitutions and to permanently block it from being applied.