HEALTHY skepticism was warranted back in January, when Gov. Eliot Spitzer first announced he would name a special commission to recommend a cap on school property taxes.
Sure, the governor's rhetoric was tough and right on the mark. And he was embracing an idea he'd rejected during his 2006 gubernatorial run - and choosing his primary opponent, Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi to chair the commission, ensuring this would at least be a high-profile effort.
But the the state's entire public education establishment, led by the New York State United Teachers, was strongly opposed to placing any limitation on property taxes. Most legislators weren't exactly clamoring for a cap, either.
Ordered to report in late May, the commission got off the ground quickly with a series of public hearings across the state. Yet any hope for real property-tax relief seemed to fade in March, when Spitzer resigned and was replaced by David Paterson, who had long been among the teachers unions' best friends in the Legislature.
But Paterson soon publicly urged Suozzi to stay on course - and he did.
Yesterday, the commission formally released a report with a refreshingly thorough, honest and taxpayer-friendly exploration of the "root causes" of high school taxes and what ought to be done about them.
Consistent with its original mandate, the commission's headline recommendation is a broad and comprehensive cap on the growth of school-tax levies - which over the past decade have grown by an average of 6 percent a year.
Following the example of Proposition 21/2, the effective tax-limitation law adopted by Massachusetts voters in 1980, the Suozzi Commission's cap meets four key benchmarks:
* It caps total levies, not individual assessments - ensuring that all types of property benefit from increased restraint on the growth in taxes.
* It gives voters a veto by requiring their approval for any "override" of the tax limit - and by allowing district residents to petition school boards for a referendum to "underride" the cap if they think it is too high.
* It neither "targets" benefits to any particular group of taxpayers nor makes exceptions for any type of spending financed by local taxes - although (like the Massachusetts law) it makes an appropriate exception for property taxes generated by new contruction.
* It sets the cap at 4 percent, or 1.2 times the rate of inflation - whichever is less. That's not low enough - the cap should range from 4 percent down to the prior year's inflation (measured by the Consumer Price Index) - but it's a start.
Over the past 10 years, inflation averaged 2.8 percent a year; the basic cap recommended by the Suozzi Commission would have averaged 3.4 percent a year.
The actual average rise in New York school-tax levies was 6 percent a year, including an unknown amount from additions to the tax base from new construction.
The commission also grabbed firm hold of one of Albany's many politically electrified third rails: It called for reform of the Taylor Law's Triborough provision, which deprives school districts of negotiating leverage by letting teachers receive incremental pay hikes even after a union contract has expired.
As expected, the Suozzi panel also endorsed the concept of replacing part of the current STAR exemption with a "circuit-breaker" delivered in the form of an income-tax credit. But commission members resisted strong pressure to endorse a budget-busting circuit-breaker bill.
ANOTHER pleasant surprise was how Paterson reacted yesterday, after Suozzi officially handed him the report.
Under the usual Albany playbook, the governor would just compliment the commission, selectively endorse its findings and vaguely promise to do something with its recommendations in the future.
Instead, Paterson took a focused and goal-oriented approach. He rightly singled out the tax cap as the overriding priority in the entire Suozzi Commission package - and said he would submit a bill to institute the reform to the Legislature this week.
The session is three weeks from ending - but at the very least, the governor has elevated the issue to a front and center position in a legislative election year.
It's easy to dismiss all this as political posturing. But consider: Prior to January, the last prominent advocate of a tax cap was the defeated 2006 Republican gubernatorial candidate, John Faso. Outside a small group of Assembly Republicans, no one else in the state Capitol was going near the idea.
A tax cap is still a long shot in New York. But the fact that it now has a shot at all is remarkable all the same.
Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/06042008/postopinion/opedcolumnists/cap_those_taxes__113850.htm