This editorial was first published in the Times Herald-Record (Middletown, New York), a fellow GateHouse Media publication. Guest editorials don't necessarily reflect the Daily Messenger's opinions.
A recent poll by the Siena College Research Institute found that New Yorkers had mixed feelings about the latest state budget. That comes as no surprise because the legislation was full of items that had mixed support coming in.
The most overwhelming and consistent support came for another non-surprise, the decision to make a nominal 2 percent cap on school tax increases permanent. This was the subject of some speculation earlier in the session but in the end, a majority was in favor of keeping taxes in check, or at least these taxes, so schools will have to keep on living within the limits imposed by the cap.
What the legislators did not do, what they have not done from the time the notion of a tax raise limit came up in Albany, was provide any relief. Without that relief, the solutions are left up to the individual districts which are about to face their first test, completing proposed budgets that stay below the cap if they want to attempt to pass them with a simple majority.
The cap is rigid in one sense, a specific number calculated each year by the state comptroller determined by the rate of inflation but that can go no higher than 2 percent. While we talk about an absolute number it can vary district by district depending on such considerations as population growth or capital expenses.
While a permanent cap is something legislators can brag about in election campaigns, it does nothing about the original complaints, the programs and policies dictated from Albany with no funding, the items best known as unfunded mandates. And this year, schools are facing the latest in what is bound to be a series of challenges to keeping the budget below the cap.
The state Association of School Business Officials has calculated that since the 2013-14 school year, health care costs have gone up by 23 percent, well beyond the rate of inflation and the cap, and there is no indication that they will decline in the near future.
Such an increase is, as the executive director of the officials put it, "unsustainable" because it leaves districts with a series of difficult, perhaps impossible, alternatives.
Schools could make employees pay more toward health care, but that would have to be part of contract negotiations. Or schools could cut other programs that would leave more money to go toward health care expenses, but that would antagonize the parents and others who support the schools come budget time.
The only other choice is to construct budgets that pay all of the health care bills, keep all of the educational programs intact and hope that the community will provide the necessary supermajority support that is required of a spending plan that exceeds the cap.
Legislators can do more to help, starting with a fundamental change in the way education is funded and an equally fundamental change in providing health care to help keep costs down.
When legislators come around bragging about the permanent tax cap, remind them that it solved one problem but created others, then ask what they are going to do about them.