Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver held a celebratory news conference last week during which they announced an agreement on implementing a 2 percent cap on property tax increases. Welcome though that announcement was, it’s clear that the work of achieving real property tax reform is far from over.
Mr. Cuomo himself noted that there are no certainties in Albany. That cautionary note seems well-advised, since the property tax cap has no shortage of enemies and skeptics. Many public employee unions oppose the cap, while some lawmakers are talking about a provision that would require the cap to be reviewed by the Legislature every few years.
The union opposition is not surprising. But the quiet maneuvering in the Legislature to require a so-called “sunset provision,” that is, a clause that would require the cap to be renewed time and time again, is more than a little mischievous. When Mr. Cuomo campaigned for a property tax cap, he made it clear that he wished to achieve real, long-term efficiencies in local government. There was no asterisk attached to that promise.
Members of his own Democratic party, however, seem less than enthused. So the governor should be prepared for a fight if he wishes to avoid a cap that would inevitably become a volatile political issue every time it comes up for renewal.
Local governments, of course, collect property taxes and depend on them to pay for municipal services, including schools. So it’s interesting to note that many local officials support the governor’s effort to cap property taxes. They also argue, with merit, that the state needs to do its share by reducing Medicaid costs and unfunded mandates. These costs have helped drive up property taxes to unaffordable rates throughout the states.
Property tax relief entails more than a simple legislative dictate. It should require a broad examination of all those issues that drive up the cost of local government. That said, property tax caps should be real, with little room for creative accounting. And they should not be subject to renewal every two or three years. The state needs genuine and permanent relief from oppressive taxation.