State defends constitutionality of property-tax cap

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ALBANY—State attorneys argued on Thursday that a powerful teachers' union had not met the heavy burden of proof necessary to deem the 2011 property-tax cap unconstitutional.

A state Supreme Court judge in Albany heard oral arguments Thursday from the attorney general's office and New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teachers union. The union has criticized the cap, which limits how much local revenue districts can raise through property taxes, as a instrument that widens funding inequities among poor and wealthy school districts.

NYSUT attorney Rich Casagrande asked the justice Kimberly O'Connor to “restore the right” of voters to determine how much they're willing to pay in taxes for local schools. He argued the cap undermines local control guaranteed by legal precedent.

It is difficult for districts to pierce the cap, which is set at 2 percent, although there are exceptions in the law that make most districts' caps higher.

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If school boards propose a budget that goes over the cap, a 60 percent supermajority must approve it. If a district's budget is voted down twice, the board must adopt a flat budget. As a result, most districts do not attempt to go over the cap.

Assistant attorney general Stephen Kerwin said the cap “was intended to address the explosion of property taxes in the state over the last several decades.”

Kerwin argued that laws are strongly presumed valid and the union's evidence that the cap is unconstitutional is thin. He pushed for the case to be dismissed.

“Plaintiffs have the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the law is unconstitutional,” he said. “That, of course, is the heaviest burden.”

Casagrande said the union is not pushing the state to raise taxes or give schools more money. The goal of the lawsuit is to preserve local control, he said.

“A poor district like Albany would never be able to raise as much money as, for instance, Scarsdale,” Casagrande told the judge. “But at least from a legal standpoint, the state did not preclude them from trying to raise more money. Under the tax cap, we do have a state seal that has been [nearly 100 percent] effective in only its second year of operation.”

O'Connor will issue a written decision, which will likely be appealed.