Local Governments Shouldn’t Be On The Hook For Free Tuition Plan

It is one thing for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature to expand spending in the state. It is another thing entirely for the state to create programs when the impact on lower levels of government is unknown.

That is exactly what is likely to happen if Cuomo’s plan to offer tuition-free attendance to SUNY and CUNY colleges and universities is approved or if the Raise the Age proposal Cuomo is touting once again are approved.

In regard to the Excelsior Scholarship, the mechanism Cuomo is using for his free college plan, the state Senate’s staff analysis of Cuomo’s 2017-18 budget proposal states it is not known now how the plan will impact local governments because no one knows how the plan will impact community college chargebacks — a fee paid by counties when a resident student attends a community college outside their home county. The 2017 Chautauqua County budget includes $4.9 million for community college support.

Changes to the current iteration of Cuomo’s plan to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years of age mean there could be implications for county governments starting in 2018. Previous incarnations of the plan had the state paying any added costs. Now, local governments would be responsible for 50 percent of the costs, though counties can apply for a waiver that would provide 100 percent reimbursement if the local government can show providing Raise the Age-services would result in financial hardship, that the county has met the state tax cap and meets other state conditions. There is no way of knowing yet how much Raise the Age compliance would cost in 2018.

Free tuition and raising the age of criminal responsibility may turn out to be good programs that solve some of the issues that plague the state. We may never know, however, because it isn’t responsible to create the programs without knowing how they will be paid for locally. Rather than bust county budgets, a better avenue would be to create pilot programs for the Excelsior Scholarship and Raise the Age so that there is a better idea how the state mandates will affect local taxpayers.

State legislators like to tout the success of the state’s 2 percent property tax cap. Every analysis shows the tax cap has been helpful to taxpayers because it has forced local governments to be ever mindful of how they spend taxpayer money. State lawmakers must be held to the same standard, however. It is not fair for local governments to have to live within a 2 percent tax cap if the state is going to implement programs with no regard as to how local governments will pay for them.