Steve Levy

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Stop Pretending Spending More on Schools Improves Performance

A recent letter to the editor from a well-intentioned resident on Long Island regarding the quality of its schools reinforces the myth that more money is the answer to failing schools.

The letter writer, whom I will call Ms. Dogooder, stated emphatically that the reason students in low wealth school districts on Long Island underperform is because their communities are unable to generate as much property tax revenues as their wealthier counterparts. She stated that an article describing problems in a local school “highlighted one of the salient reasons why some schools fail. Money is an important factor. Higher performing schools spend more per pupil because their property taxes are usually higher.”

She represents a surprisingly large segment of the population, who believe that the cure to fixing underperforming schools is simply to throw more money at the problem. Unfortunately, continuing to hold onto this discredited concept punishes not only over beleaguered taxpayer, but also the very students that the do-gooders claim to be advocating for.

Ms. Dogooder states that schools such as Hempstead, in Nassau County, are spending far less per pupil than wealthy districts, because they cannot raise enough in property taxes. This is simply false.

Ms. Dogooder is correct in her assertion that Hempstead, will raise less money from property tax collections than say, Garden City, a far wealthier zip code. But she seems to be unaware that disproportionately higher state aid granted to low wealth districts more than offsets any disparities in property tax collections.

For instance, while the wealthy district of Garden City garners $5.7 million in state aid, Hempstead receives $119 million. Thus, the $27,000 average spending per-pupil in Hempstead, is actually more than the $25,000 per-pupil spent in Garden City.
From 2006 to 2015, state aid to education increased by $6 billion to a total of $23 billion, despite a brutal recession in between. By 2018, aid had risen to almost $27 billion, with lower wealth districts receiving the far more dollars per pupil.

The average New York State spending per pupil in 2015 was $21,000, almost double the $11,000 national average. Using Ms. Dogooder’s logic, wouldn’t that mean that New York test scores would be twice as good? Actually, our reading test scores for fourth-graders are below national average, according to “The Nation’s Report Card”, proving that simply pushing more money toward the problem is not the solution.

Perhaps if we instill more competition and discipline, along with higher standards, we would see better results. Rather than pretending that low performance is the result of a lack of funding, perhaps we’d be better off looking at root problems of underperformance, including the breakdown of the nuclear family.

The only thing the philosophy espoused by Ms. Dogooder has accomplished is making New York one of the highest taxed areas in the nation. We need to fix the problem, but we can’t do so until we understand the cause.

Steve Levy is Executive Director of the Center for Cost Effective Governance. He served as Suffolk County Executive, as a NYS Assemblyman, and host of The Steve Levy Radio Show.

Election Reform: Proceed With Caution

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed a New York State election reform bill and it’s about time. But as the old saying goes, the devil’s in the details.

There are many derivatives to this overarching theme. And while the state has some of the most archaic election laws on the books, we have to be careful which reforms will move us forward and which will make matters worse.

There’s no liberal or conservative answer to the problem; rather, it’s a mixed bag of common sense.

YES TO EARLY VOTING

New York is a rare state, restricting voting to just one day. Having early voting stretch out weeks before the election is not only expensive, but it overlooks that so much can change just a week before the election. The best route is to allow for voting on the weekend of election week, in addition to the traditional Tuesday.

NO TO SAME-DAY REGISTRATION

Placing the burden on nonprofessional per diem election inspectors to validate the eligibility for those registering at the same time they are voting is too much to ask. The potential for fraud is just not worth it.

YES TO AUTOMATIC REGISTRATION

What’s wrong with automatically registering American citizens to vote once they become 18, as long as this is limited only to those with valid social security numbers? Yes, it would give an advantage to the Democratic voting bloc, but more voter eligibility is healthy for a democracy.

YES TO EASIER BALLOT ACCESS

New York is notorious for kicking candidates off the ballot for the most minor technicalities. Just last year, a candidate running for the Nassau County Legislature was temporarily thrown off the ballot because his petitions stated he was running for Nassau legislator instead of legislature.

NO TO OPEN PRIMARIES

This is one of the trendiest, yet most problematic, of the proposed reforms. The only people determining who the standardbearer for a party should be are the registered members of that particular party. In 2016, there were numerous instances in open primary states of folks admitting to mischievously voting in the their opposing party’s primaries to support a candidate they perceived would be the weakest.

YES TO VOTER ID

President Donald Trump dramatically overstated the extent of voter fraud. However, the claim by Democrats that fraud is nonexistent may be even more dangerous. Voter fraud is rare, but you don’t need many illegitimate votes to tilt an entire election. Al Franken won his U.S. Senate election by a smaller margin (312) than the number of votes that were suspected as being tainted (at least 393).

When it comes to election reform, it indeed depends on how you define “reform.” Let’s say “yes” to greater ballot access and opportunities to vote, but “no” to any so-called reforms that weaken the integrity of the voting process.

Keeping Taxes, Fees Down Around Long Island

Long Island

A better way to remove nitrogen in Suffolk?

As county executive, I passed a law that allowed surplus revenues in the Sewer Assessment Stabilization Fund to be used for the upgrades of existing sewer and septic systems. We didn’t mandate septic systems replacement because it could cause severe financial hardship on homeowners.

The Bellone administration put forth a different program, also providing money for these purposes. However, a new Suffolk law will require that the homeowners replace deteriorating cesspools with systems that may cost $17,000 to $25,000. There may be small grants or loans available, but it will still be quite burdensome.

But there may be a better way – through technology that can dramatically reduce nitrogen, while costing only about $1,000 for the equipment and $1,500 for installation. The legislature must analyze this option as a possible way to improve the environment without placing our over-beleaguered residents into financial turmoil.

Don’t handcuff Hempstead Supervisor

Kudos to Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen, who is bringing a lawsuit to invalidate the power grab by the outgoing administration that sought to prevent her from implementing any layoffs as she took the reins of power.

This was a disgusting partisan ploy by an outdated political machine. An executive must maintain the power to trim the size of government to keep taxes under control, or even to be able to make the threat to impose layoffs.

Without such leverage, there is zero ability to obtain concessions from the very strong municipal labor unions on Long Island. Let’s hope Gillen wins this suit and that officials from both parties refrain from this type of patronage protection in the future.

Higher LIPA rates?

Clean alternative power sources are the wave of the future, but we have to implement their usage in a sensible way. For instance, we should not be destroying woodlands, as is happening in central Brookhaven, for the purpose of laying down solar panels. (The town is wisely fighting it.) There are thousands of buildings and deteriorated centers that can host solar panels without having to resort to destroying whatever limited foliage still remains in our suburban community.

As for windmills, they might be an additional power source in spots, but we should be honest with the public that energy generated by windmills can cost four to seven times more per kilowatt than standard power plant energy. Beware, because our energy prices are about to go even higher, due to the governor’s pledge to have ratepayers throughout the state bail out failed nuclear power plants upstate. This will cost us $7 billion in our rates. No one bailed out Long Island to cover the cost of Shoreham.

Nassau exec v. unions

Interesting that it is the new Democratic executive who is standing up to the municipal unions in Nassau County. Laura Curran deserves credit for not having caved in her pre-election interviews with the unions by making a crazy promise to raise taxes over imposing layoffs.

It allowed her to maintain her independence and now we are seeing her seeking to invalidate a memorandum of understanding between the last administration and the unions that gave them additional longevity payments. Curran is also wisely embracing the Nassau Interim Finance Authority control board, which under the leadership of Adam Barsky, is finally acting like a true monitor and demanding cuts, instead of practicing the “don’t make waves” posture of the past.

Suffolk, which actually has a deficit larger the Nassau, should be seeking a control board itself to provide the statutory power to change burdensome contracts that are taxpayer killers. Curran and Barsky are showing how cooperation can be a bonus for the taxpayer.

Return school surpluses to taxpayers

Schools on LI continue to deliberately overestimate expenditures and underestimate revenues in order to create artificially high escrows, which illegally exceed the 4 percent limit imposed by the state.

The state comptroller should implement legislation that mirrors how improper escrows are handled with the MTA. The state intercepts sales tax money that would otherwise go to the MTA. State aid that would otherwise go directly to the school should instead be rerouted directly to the taxpayer in an amount equal to that above the 4 percent escrow limit.

Make tax cap permanent

Long Island residents shouldn’t assume that the very successful 2 percent tax cap will be around forever. It was temporary and must be renewed by the state.

It’s scary to know that the power of the Senate may shift from the Republican suburbanites to the New York City Democrats. They would have no desire to keep the cap in place unless they were able to first extract a huge price from Long Island taxpayers. Now is the time for the state to make the cap permanent, while the Republican suburbanites still maintain control of the Senate.

Steve Levy is President of Common Sense Strategies, a political consulting firm. He served as Suffolk County Executive, as a NYS Assemblyman, and host of “The Steve Levy Radio Show.”

Hopes for a Taxpayer Friendly 2018

It’s laudable that our state legislators lashed out against parts of the federal tax plan that will hurt New York. But the taxpayer protection measures below are all within the power of these same legislators.

Will their votes back up their rhetoric? We will find out over the months to come.

From all of us at the Center for Cost Effective Governance, here are our wishes for the upcoming year.

1. Make the two percent property tax permanent
This important protection should not be a bargaining chip for New York City legislators on extraneous matters every few years. Make it permanent.

2. Stop circumventing the tax cap
Since interest on bonds is exempt from the tax cap, more and more schools have been floating bonds of over $200 million, which cost each household about $250 per year for several decades. Make the cap a real cap. At the very least, require any bonding votes be held on the same day as the budget vote in May; not in winter, when folks are away.

3. Return school surpluses
Let this be the year the courts enforce provisions that require schools to return surpluses over four percent back to the taxpayers. This law has been ignored for too long. A law should be passed permitting the Comptroller to intercept state aid for districts keeping too much surplus, and return it directly to taxpayers.

4. Eliminate overtime from pensions
Employee shouldn’t be able to double their pensions by working unlimited overtime in the last few years of service, thereby artificially increasing their base salary on which the pension is set. Six-figure pensions are becoming commonplace in public safety unions. It’s unsustainable.

5. Allow schools to buy off of the federal purchasing list
At the Center’s request, Rep. Lee Zeldin has sponsored a bill to allow schools to buy goods off the federal vendor list, as they can presently off the state list. The larger the pool, the lower the cost.

6. Abolish the Railroad Disability Board
Years after it was uncovered that 97 percent of retired LIRR employees were receiving disability pensions, reforms were supposedly enacted. The result? Ninety percent of employees are still being granted such pensions. Throw this board overboard and let claims be heard through a more balanced entity.

7. End Gerrymandering
As we approach the 2020 census, government should be preparing to implement nonpartisan, independent redistricting panels.

8. End Union Leave
Either the courts or the Legislature should invalidate the concept of having taxpayer dollars used to free up union leaders to lobby for their union issues, which often result in higher taxes. Let union dues pay for that purpose, as is the case in the private sector.

9. Suffolk’s first I&R
This may be the year that citizens finally implement a successful Initiative and Referendum petition in Suffolk County. It’s possible there may be a proposal requiring all budget votes be taken before, rather than after, the election.

10. End the Scaffold LawNew York is the only state that makes a building owner absolutely liable for worker injuries, even if the injuries were caused by the workers’ negligence. It’s estimated this law adds $10,000 to the construction of every new home.

Steve Levy is Executive Director of the Center for Cost Effective Governance. He served as Suffolk County Executive, as a NYS Assemblyman, and host of “The Steve Levy Radio Show.”

When A Tax Cap Is Not Really A Tax Cap

When is a tax cap not a tax cap. The answer is when, as with our New York State cap, bonded interest is exempt from the parameters of the cap.

Thus, we hear of Port Jefferson schools proposing a bond of $29 million, which will not be counted in the cap calculations, yet will raise taxes by 5 percent a year, costing each household about $200 annually over and above the regular increases that will come with the budget that will supposedly be within the 2 percent cap.

So, in essence, the school taxes will increase by 5-7 percent or more, while the press release will proclaim that the budget is within 2 percent.

This is nothing to sneeze at. The same residents will be paying an almost 5 percent increase in their police taxes next year. Yet the county says the increase is within the 2 percent cap, because folks in the Southwest Sewer District in Babylon will get a return of some of the millions that were improperly taken from them after the bonds for the sewer district had already been paid off. (Residents outside the sewer district, including Port Jeff, will not see any of those offsets.)

Expenditures dedicated to paying off the skyrocketing pension costs are also exempt. That is significant when you consider that the county has borrowed over $300 million for pension costs over the past five years (even though the recession has abated).

At least in the county, when the operating budget, upon which the tax levy is based, is put together, the budget crafters already know the size of the capital budget and the extent of the bonds and interest to be incorporated into the general fund.

Schools, on the other hand, can craft an operating budget in May, citing a specific tax levy, and thereafter float a bond that dramatically increases that number. Voters are duped into believing they are voting for a 2 percent increase in May, only to have an extra 5 percent piled on them in a bond vote in September.

There are two potential solutions:

The first is having the state legislature revise the law and remove the exemption of bonded indebtedness from the cap. But that, admittedly, is a heavy political lift.

The second, more realistic, proposal is to require that any such bonding referenda be voted upon on or before the school’s operating budget is put up to a public vote in May of each year. If a bonding referendum is floated, it should contain wording clearly alerting voters to the extent that the bond would have on the cap and the real dollar tax impact upon the average household.

The good news is that there is such an amendment that has been introduced in the state legislature. Our Center has been promoting its adoption. The bad news is the state legislature continues to bottle this reform up in committee.

Once again, the status quo is winning in Albany. If you are tired of paying a 7 percent tax increase when your school is telling you the budget is within the 2 percent cap, give a nudge to your state rep to change this madness.

Steve Levy is Executive Director of the Center for Cost Effective Government. He served as Suffolk County Executive, as a NYS Assemblyman, and host of “The Steve Levy Radio Show.”

Should Voters OK Referendum for a NY Constitutional Convention?

constitutional convention
The New York State Capitol Building in Albany.

 

This November, one of the most important propositions of the last 20 years will be on the statewide ballot, and few, other than political insiders, are even aware of it. That public referendum will determine whether or not New Yorkers will convene a convention to amend our state constitution.

Founded in 1777, our state constitution pre-dates even its U.S. counterpart.

In 1801, New Yorkers held our first constitutional convention to discuss the original. At a subsequent convention, it was decided that every 20 years a vote would be held to ask if voters wanted to conform their constitution to the changing times.

Make no mistake, some of these conventions have led to historic change.

In 1821, the public removed the requirement that voters be property owners.

The 1846 convention placed limits on lawmakers’ ability to impose too much debt on the taxpayers.

In the post-Civil War convention of 1867, prohibitions against blacks owning property were eviscerated.

The 1894 convention of the Grover Cleveland era provided the basis of our present constitution, including the establishment of the civil service system, the requirement to obtain home rule messages from localities and prohibiting public funds being dispersed to religious institutions.

The Depression era convention of 1938 ushered in liberal laws protecting rights related to labor, housing and the indigent. Nine amendments were proposed separately, with six passing.

But the convention of 1967, in the midst of one of America’s most tumultuous periods, saw all its many propositions struck down because delegates decided to place them all in a single up or down vote. While liberals were delighted with the amendments to provide free college tuition, lowering the voting age to 18, and creating an independent reapportionment system, they deplored a conservative amendment to end the ban on funding religious institutions. Combining them in one vote doomed them all.

In a rare occurrence, another convention attempt was posed to voters just 10 years later. But voters declined to convene one then, as they did again in 1997.

And this November we are poised for a chance to have the first convention since 1967.

So, should we vote yea or nay? We, at the Center for Cost Effective Government, give a conditional yea. Conditional, because depending on who winds up controlling the convention, it can either usher in desperately needed reforms or possibly make matters even worse.

In 1967, two-thirds of the delegates were lawyers, 20 percent were judges and most were beholden to the same special interests that controlled the state legislature.

If the public supports the upcoming vote, three delegates will be elected in November 2018 in each of the 63 Senatorial district throughout New York. (There will also be 15 at large delegates.) Amendments passing at the convention would then go before all voters for final approval on the statewide ballot in November 2019.

Yes, the unions and special interests, already so deeply organized, have the potential to derail the convention, but it’s probably worth the risk.

Does anyone believe that the present crop of elected officials in Albany will stand up to the unions and eliminate the Triborough Amendment, which provides automatic salary step increases (even after the contract has expired), or end mandatory arbitration that has given some law enforcement personnel $225,000 annual salaries?

Would they have the resolve to require new employees to take a 401(k) type of pension similar to the private sector, so taxpayers are no longer on the hook for guaranteed 7.5 percent returns on the pension fund?

Does anyone believe the legislature would end the Scaffold Law that adds $10,000 to the construction of any new home in New York, or the Wicks Law that unnecessarily increases the cost to construct a public building in New York by up to 30 percent?

If you think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that the state legislature will finally see the light and pass these reforms, then vote against the constitutional convention. But if not, let’s roll the dice and give it a chance. It may be the only shot we will ever get in our lifetimes to stop the annual exodus of 185,000 New Yorkers to cheaper states.

And finally, if as a fiscal conservative you are still on the fence, there is one other reason to vote yes: the unions are opposing it big time. Nothing could be scarier for them than to grant we the people the opportunity to exact reform by bypassing the elected class that they so thoroughly control.

Steve Levy is Executive Director of the Center for Cost Effective Government. He served as Suffolk County Executive, as a New York State Assemblyman, and host of “The Steve Levy Radio Show.”