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What can we learn from other states on property tax caps?

Mayor David Cohen of Newton, Mass. The town faces school budget cuts after failing to override a tax cap. <em>## Herald##</em>
Mayor David Cohen of Newton, Mass. The town faces school budget cuts after failing to override a tax cap. ## Herald##

Last Friday, the New York State Senate approved a 4% annual cap on school property tax increases for local school districts, excluding the state’s largest cities. To override the cap would require the vote of 55 percent of voters in a district. The New York Times reports that the bill is unlikely to pass in the State Assembly, where it is opposed by Speaker Sheldon Silver. The tax cap, proposed by the governor, is intended to provide relief to homeowners.

I grew up in Massachusetts under Proposition 2 1/2, a tax cap similar to that proposed for New York. In Lenox, MA, my hometown, when a tax override was considered to build a new school for our town’s increasing enrollment, voter turnout to town meetings swelled, Planning Board, School Committee, and Board of Selectmen positions were fiercely contested, and rhetoric in the papers and at meetings often turned nasty. Dollars for schools were painted as dollars taken away from the elderly. Our neighbors across the street even constructed a sculpture in their front yard depicting the schools going into the garbage! In the end, we got the new school, but the time and energy lost to fighting can never be recovered.

But don’t just take my word for it. Directors of school board associations in Massachusetts and California penned warnings to the New York State Legislature. Glen Koocher of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, listed five ways the tax cap hurt schools, then concluded,

A bad public policy, once implemented, becomes entrenched and is difficult to rescind. If saving taxpayers money now is your priority, tax caps may be for you. But if maintaining a socially responsible, sound public education policy is important, New York policy makers would be well-advised to be extremely cautious as they consider a tax cap. A poorly crafted proposal will sacrifice the future for many in exchange for short-term benefits for some.

To see an example of Prop. 2 1/2 in action today, read about a proposed override in Newton, MA – and the costs to the schools when the override failed: in May, the town eliminated 79 positions, including all elementary school social workers.

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