Union Files Suit Over Property Tax Cap in New York

The New York State United Teachers has filed a lawsuit against the state claiming that caps on annual increases in local property taxes are unconstitutional because they attempts to usurp the control of local school districts. The caps were proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo and passed by the Legislature in 2011.

This places a limit on the property tax increases at no higher than either 2% or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower, and about 95% of districts – while raising property taxes – stayed within the cap during the last fiscal year.

The lawsuit is not a surprise to policy watchers in the state, as the union has been mulling this move ever since union lobbying didn’t stop the measure from passing two years ago.

“Today we fund education at more than a billion dollars less than we did in 2008,” the union’s president, Richard C. Iannuzzi, said in a phone interview. “When you take that context and you layer it with the property tax cap, we’re violating, in our minds, two very fundamental principles of democracy, which is ‘one person, one vote,’ and equal opportunity.”

This isn’t the first time that Governor Cuomo and the teachers unions locked horns over education funding. Since taking office two years ago, Cuomo has been aggressive in controlling the state budget, and that included education funding which he cut in his first budget proposal. The cap presents a constant source of worry for union members who feel that with their hands tied as to raising more revenue, local districts will resort to cutting either teachers or programs, both of which will hurt the students, the union contends.

The union argues that the cap has a disproportionately onerous effect on school districts in low-income areas, since the amount those districts can raise by increasing their tax levy under the cap is far less than what wealthy districts with a larger tax base can raise. As such, the lawsuit argues, the tax cap violates the guarantee of equal protection under the law.

Mr. Cuomo, speaking to reporters in Albany, said that high property taxes were forcing people to leave their homes, and that when it came to improving the state’s schools, “the answer can’t always be putting your hand in the pocket of the taxpayer of the State of New York.”

Although Cuomo expressed support for the system that allowed such matters to be settled in front of a judge, he maintained that passing the property tax hike was a great achievement of his administration of which he was immensely proud.