With the conclusion of its budget season, New York’s state legislature has lost another opportunity to enact reforms that could make the Empire State more affordable for the average taxpayer. Legislators spent weeks debating sexual harassment, a sexual-abuse statute of limitations, and a ban on bump stocks for guns, but apparently no time on the crushing state mandates that have put New York at the top of the list of the highest-taxed states. And in a classic only-in-Albany gesture, state officials, despite their pledge to impose no new taxes, worked around this promise by calling their new tax on opioids an “assessment.”
New York’s leaders in Albany don’t seem to comprehend that the matters they dwell on are often much less important to their constituents, whether businesses or residents, for whom issues of cost and affordability remain paramount. On some estimates, for example, the price tag of new construction in New York is artificially inflated by at least $10,000 because of the Scaffold Law—found only in New York— which stipulates that building owners are fully liable for construction injuries involving height, even when the owner is not at fault, and thus drives up insurance costs. The Scaffold Law is a business killer, but it remains stubbornly on the books.
A recent study by ATTOM Data Solutions confirms that a person of average income seeking to buy a $490,000 house in Nassau County—a price beneath the median—would have to spend up to 67 percent of his income to cover the costs. Contrast that with, say, the area surrounding Charlotte, North Carolina, where an average resident would need to spend just 26 percent of his income to acquire a comparable property.
It’s not only the high cost of brick and mortar that quashes homeownership dreams for many New Yorkers but also confiscatory property taxes, which keep climbing, due to state laws that favor special interests over taxpayers. Up to 70 percent of most state budgets go toward covering personnel costs. When outdated state laws related to mandatory arbitration result in average police detective salaries of $228,000 on Long Island, it shouldn’t be surprising that Nassau and Suffolk Counties rank consistently among the highest-taxed counties in the nation. Nearly 1,000 Suffolk County employees, mostly in law enforcement, earn annual salaries exceeding $200,000, according to Newsday. Pensions for New York City firefighters average more than $100,000 per year for recent retirees—due, in part, to rules allowing overtime to be factored into the pension base. While limits on using overtime to calculate pensions were established for new hires in 2010, thousands of employees will continue to inflate their pensions over the next few decades. The topic did not come up for debate in Albany this session.
Schools get more and more state aid, yet taxes continue to rise, even as enrollment often declines. Nevertheless, legislators continue to ignore the inflationary effects of the Triborough Amendment—a rule unique to New York—which permits automatic step-salary increases for public employees, even after a contract has expired. Schools continue to circumvent the spirit of the state’s tax cap—which limits increases to the property tax—by floating bonds exceeding $150 million, because bonded payments are exempt from the cap, allowing them to spend more. Legislators do nothing about it.
Hard-working taxpayers continue to subsidize a growing population on the disability rolls, in part because New York State makes it so easy not to work. Yet legislators did not address ending the statutory presumption that heart or lung ailments for some state employees are job-related. Nor was there any discussion about ending 20-years-and-out retirements for public workers, which may have made sense when people didn’t live long past 65 but are unsustainable in an age when many keep working into their seventies.
Legislators were silent, too, about why infrastructure improvements cost so much more in New York: absurd union rules, including one that pays MTA employees double-time if they work on both an electric and a diesel train on the same day, make everything more expensive. Almost 200 Long Island Railroad (LIRR) workers now earn more than $200,000 annually, according to the Empire Center. It took liberal outsider Cynthia Nixon to point this out. Incumbents, on either side of the aisle, say nothing.
In their refusal to address substantive issues affecting New York, legislators offered a vivid demonstration of how the state has gotten itself into such an economic and fiscal predicament. Granted, this was just the budget portion of the session. But, if past is prologue, don’t hold your breath waiting for change to come.
Photo: Matt H. Wade