A watchdog that bites

As a champion of robust eccentricity over political correctness, I am a great admirer of the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany. Research director Ed McMahon, a particular favorite, can be depended upon for a trenchantly penny-pinching but data-driven outlook on state politics. The Empire Center, originally a spinoff from the prestigious conservative think tank The Manhattan Institute, keeps a righteous eye on the public pocketbook.

How else would I have known so quickly that New Paltz’s school district ranked ninth out of 100 school districts in the Hudson Valley this year for its six percent increase in the per-pupil tax levy in its 2019-2020 budget as compared to 2018-2019? The statewide school-budget voting was only two weeks ago, after all.

Partly because the boundaries of school districts don’t follow the usual political boundaries, school-board elections are resolutely local. With few exceptions, voters in a school district have little idea of what’s going on in the neighboring districts. The availability of timely Empire Center data makes a useful contribution to overcoming that parochialism. One can appreciate the Empire Center’s numbers for their completeness, accessibility and timeliness without necessarily accepting its policy prescriptions.

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Ditto for some of the Empire Center’s careful recent studies in the healthcare sphere. That’s a sector where underreported organizational disruption with substantial social consequences continues to accelerate. 

We’re all aware of the continuing kerfuffle regarding the citizenship question on next April’s federal census. Our nation’s beloved president has been outraged at resistance to the question. “Can you believe that the Radical Left Democrats want to do our new and very important Census Report without the all-important Citizenship Question? [Capitalization and punctuation his],” Donald Ttump recently tweeted. “Report would be meaningless and a waste of the $Billions — ridiculous — that it costs to put together!”

The federal Census Bureau makes public annual estimates of population change at the municipal level every year. You can find the 2010-2018 data in a great variety of places. The Empire Center’s website, one of those places, allows rankings, geographical sorting and other forms of simple manipulation of the data.   

For context on the Empire Center finding regarding the changing level of property taxation in the New Paltz schools, I looked for the same per-pupil tax-levy rankings for the eight other school districts in Ulster County. The Onteora district, with a 4.1 percent increase, ranked 24 out of the hundred districts. Saugerties and Ellenville were tied at 40 and 41 with a 3.2 percent increase, followed closely by Rondout Valley at 43 with a 3.1 percent. In the bottom half of the regional rankings were Wallkill, up 2.7 percent, and Marlboro, up 2.2 percent. Highland, up 1.6 percent, and Kingston, with 1.2 percent, were in the 73rd and 79th places respectively.

There are valid reasons other than governance profligacy for these differentials. The New Paltz district explained its increase persuasively enough for its voters to affirm the $63.6-million school budget by a decisive 782-320 vote, while neighboring Highland voters supported that district’s $44.4-million budget by an even stronger 629-197 margin. 

Over half of the 668 school districts in the state seeking voter approval for their budgets this year presented spending plans to increase property taxes as high as the 2011 property tax-cap law allowed, according to the Empire Center analysis. (Excluded were the so-called ‘Big Five’ urban districts, which have about half the state’s pupil enrollments.) The tax-cap-supporting and teacher-union-suspicious Empire Center couldn’t resist the reasonable supposition that the 346 school districts which set property-tax levies as high as the cap would allow would have increased property taxes “significantly more had the cap not been in place to deter them.” 

Districts had increased school property taxes by 2.5 percent while forecasting total enrollment to dip by 7827, or 0.5 percent. Another not-so-subtle criticism?

There’s nothing wrong with the Census Bureau’s American FactFinder of basic demographics and economic categories available not only by governmental jurisdiction but also by zip code, or with the short-form QuickFacts. In fact, that’s where the Empire Center gets its numbers. But the Albany data provider, not unlike Donald Trump except for being fact-based, adds its own questions. It provides over 50 different data sets in seven categories: cost of government, economy, education, health care, transportation, population and demographics, and tax burdens. 

In each, there is a variety of rankings. In the last category, one finds not only tax burdens and tax climate, but also “Freedom in the Fifty States,” whose four freedoms are economic, regulatory, fiscal and personal. Guess what? New York State ranks last in all but the final freedom, personal, where it’s ranked 29th.

In “Cost of Doing Business,” wages, taxes, rent and other business costs are calculated by state. In “Average Price Per Gallon of Gasoline,” one can compare prices by state for regular, medium, premium and diesel fuel. One can apply a “State Competitiveness Index” to find New York State ranking 31st in the nation. The state doesn’t do as well in “Economic Outlook,” a broad category that puts New York dead last in the country. 

The Empire Center has pioneered in the study of the relationship between educational investment and the results of test scores. Part of the reason New York State students in the aggregate don’t do as well in these tests as those in other states is that a higher proportion of New York students (76 percent) take the Scholastic Aptitude Test. But that doesn’t account for all the performance differences. The Empire Center, a supporter of charter schools, has been among the leaders in the extended discussion among educators of the advantages and perils of “teaching to the test.” 

Many people’s favorite in the section on interstate migration has come from the inclusion of data from the United and Mayflower van lines, both of which calculate that about three-fifths of interstate activity consists of moves out of the state and two-fifths into the state. No more graphic a data set could be concocted.

The Empire Center’s publication of salary, double dipping and overtime abuse information for all public employees has proven an evergreen source for sensational media stories. Every year New York public employees stoke up massively on overtime in order significantly to fatten their already generous retirement paychecks, and every year the media dutifully write stories about how angry that makes other New Yorkers.

The Empire Center plays a significant watchdog role bringing transparency to government. It combs through public information and makes it available to the public. Its information-gathering and analysis perform a vital role. Somebody has to do it.

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