by Elizabeth (Liz) Berney, Esq.
Thank you to Karen Rubin for her lovely, warm article on Mayor Samansky’s life and sad passing.
However, I have to differ with Ms. Rubin’s latest article complaining about the recently enacted property-tax cap, especially her new (unsupported) argument that requiring a supermajority public vote (of 60 percent) to override the property tax cap is an unconstitutional equal protection violation. (My prior articles about the property tax cap in this newspaper answered many of Ms. Rubin’s other recent charges.)
Supermajority requirements are almost always constitutional, particularly when imposed to override a law or veto.
Ever since the time of our founding fathers, some matters have been considered too vital to be determined by a mere majority’s fancy. The federal constitution, many state constitutions, and many corporate governing documents contain supermajority requirements.
Well-known examples in the U.S. Constitution include the two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress required to override a presidential veto or pass a Constitutional amendment, the 2/3 Senate vote required to ratify treaties, the vote of three quarters of the states required to ratify Constitutional amendments, the 2/3 vote required to expel a member from a house of Congress (maybe Anthony Weiner had a shot at remaining in his Congressional seat, after all), and the 2/3 vote of the Senate required to convict an impeached federal official (which helped save Bill Clinton when 50 senators voted to convict him of obstruction- impeachment charges).
Sixteen states (alas, New York is not among them) require supermajority votes of their legislatures to raise taxes (and generally have lower state taxes as a result of this requirement).
A supermajority requirement is certainly warranted for the property tax cap, which is so vital to New York. Under the New York State Constitution (Article VIII, Section 12), the New York State Legislature is required to prevent local governments from engaging in abusive taxation. If a mere majority could override the property tax cap, the property tax cap would become completely non-existent – since a majority is required to pass a school budget in any event.
Interestingly, this past May (2011), the Great Neck Schools 2011-12 school year budget passed by almost 81 percent of the vote (constituting 1,338 votes) – far in excess of the 60 percent that would be required to override the property tax cap during the next five years when the cap will be in force. (Renewals of the cap depend on renewal of rent regulation).
This high passage rate occurred despite the fact that the Great Neck Public Schools 2011-12 school budget is $193,324,596 (almost $31,000 per student, which is far higher than local Jewish and Catholic day schools charge, and may be the highest public school budget in the entire state and the country).
The Great Neck Public Schools 2011-12 budget also includes 40 administrative positions, each paying an average of approximately $170,000 in salary plus approximately $50, 000 in benefits – a total of approximately $220,000 total per administrator, which is about three times what the average resident of Great Neck Village earns. The top Great Neck schools administrator will receive a $245,000 salary, $58,397 in benefits, and $20,000 in other compensation (Total: $323,397).
Will our schools really be hurt if the budget is “only” increased at 2 percent or the rate of inflation, or even if it were frozen? Half the lawyers I know want to quit working as lawyers, and to teach or work for the public schools!
The people who are really hurting are local taxpayers. The most frequently-expressed problem by community members is that their property taxes are unaffordable. An elderly couple in Great Neck Village who I met two weeks ago told me that they just sold their house and are moving out-of-state because they can no longer afford their property taxes, despite the fact that they receive Star and other exemptions.
Others spoke about the large numbers of houses for sale – even in Kings Point – because homeowners can no longer afford their taxes. What good is spending even more on our schools if people cannot afford to live here?
Ms. Rubin and I do agree on one point in her article: mandates need to be reduced.
However, Ms. Rubin’s recent article refused to give credit where credit is due for the recently-passed mandate reductions. Mandate relief was passed by the Republican-controlled state Senate while the Democratic-controlled Assembly refused to act for months afterwards.
(Author’s Note: This article was first printed in the Great Neck News, New Hyde Park Courier, and Williston Times on July 27, 2011.)