Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Emperor Andrew and his new clothes

North Country Public Radio's In Box blog did a piece entitled 'Voters slap down four school budgets that bust prop[erty] tax cap.' That title is misleading because in at least one of them, the budget was approved by a majority of voters, but not the arbitrary 60% required under the new law for any proposed increase above the artificial tax cap (generally seen as 2% but other factors can make it vary).

This has been a pet peeve of mine. School budgets are the only taxes people get to vote on, at least in New York. As the only tax approved by direct democracy, imposing an arbitrary supermajority requirement seems particularly unfair.

But the real problem is how Governor Andrew Cuomo has shamefully broken his promise twin the tax cap with much needed mandate relief for schools, counties and municipalities.So basically he's told these entities: we're going to micromanage everything you have to do but we're going to make it as difficult as possible to raise enough revenue to do all those things we impose on you without your consent.

I suggest a different kind of cap. If the state mandated part of a school district's budget rises by more than 2% - the part that Albany has total control of and the districts zero - then the state should pay the difference. This might make Albany think a little more carefully before imposing every mandate under the sun. A little accountability would be nice.

But this is Albany. If there were any accountability in the place, Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver would be out on his can for *repeatedly* aiding and abetting sexual predators, using our tax money to do so. So localities shouldn't expect a fair shake anytime soon.

Cuomo is big on lecturing lower levels of government. He wags his finger at others on how all they have to do is make 'tough decisions' and things will be hunky dory... even though a huge number of the decisions are imposed on them by Cuomo himself and his minions. A typical county budget in New York has 80-90% of its expenses mandated by the state; its actual flexibility is minimal.

But Emperor Andrew's real sham is the elaborate shell games he likes to play precisely so he himself can avoid making tough decisions. The vaunted tax cap is a great example. He didn't do a darn thing. This doesn't require him to make a single tough decision. The law just tells other people what to do, people who had nothing to do with passing the law, and makes them pick up the pieces.

The law ties the hands of lower levels of government so Cuomo can puff his chest and say "I kept taxes in check"... while avoiding having the make the tough decisions involved with paring down mandates. The mandate part, he passed of to some commission years ago and we've heard virtually nothing since.

This way, the counties, municipalities and school districts who will take the heat for laying off staff and cutting programs while Emperor Andrew keeps himself above the fray and pontificates on tough decisions... the kind he's too gutless to make himself.

Cuomo is a master at doing nothing, passing the buck and portraying it as progress. His latest shell game has to do with tax-free zones, similar to the discredited Empire Zone scam. The idea is that if new businesses set up in towns with a state university campus, they can get tax-free status for up to a decade.

Emperor Andrew is a very smart politician. He proposes things like this and the tax cap which sound great, so long as you don't look to carefully at some... something which he's counting on most people not done.

But for the tax-free zone plan, more than likely, taxes will actually INCREASE for most people in those places.

These new businesses will be apparently exempt from property taxes. Yet they will still be using the same public services like roads, snow removal and fire and police protection. The total cost of public services will remain the same, but with fewer property taxpayers (because of all the exemptions) to share that burden, those who actually are paying taxes will pay more.

The only way this could be avoided is for Albany to reimburse localities for the revenue lost from these tax-exempt businesses.

And that's about as likely to happen as a wave of honesty and good governance to break out in the Capitol.

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