We’ve all heard the adage that the only things that are certain in life are death and taxes. But today it’s more accurate to say that what’s also certain for most Americans are debt and taxes.
Let’s start with taxes. In places like Long Island, people are struggling under a burden of exorbitantly high property taxes — mostly school taxes — in addition to substantial state income taxes. And now that the deductibility of state and local taxes from federal taxes has been capped at $10,000, many Long Islanders find themselves paying more in combined taxes than ever. It’s not uncommon for retired longtime homeowners on Long Island to pay more in property taxes than their mortgage payments.
That’s why the issue of property tax assessments is so heated here, particularly in Nassau County. The property tax system is so convoluted and subjective that many homeowners believe their tax assessments are unfair. Given all this anxiety, it’s understandable that county legislators have voted to make the county assessor’s position elective rather than appointed. It’s not illogical to assume that an elected assessor would feel more obliged to make the property tax system more equitable. I began my own career as the elected receiver of taxes for the Town of Hempstead, so I know from experience that the prospect of the next election sharpens an official’s sense of urgency when doing one’s job.
But let’s face it: No matter what’s done to rejigger taxes in New York — and on Long Island in particular — they are, in the minds of many, just “too damn high.” There’s little chance that’s going to change unless there’s some fundamental reform in the way the largest consumers of local taxes — our schools — are run. We spend nearly twice the national average on public schools on Long Island, but can we honestly say that our schools are twice as good as the national average? Or are we locked into a system of too many school districts top-heavy with too many administrators, high operating costs and student achievement results that don’t justify those excessive costs? It’s a debate worth having.
Another one worth having is about the cost of higher education. Our colleges and universities have driven tuition costs to astronomical levels. Young people coming out of college today often carry a crushing debt burden. Unlike earlier generations, they have little prospect of being able to afford that first home, or even a new car. They work in order to pay their debts.
It’s more than ironic that our college administrators and professors — most of whom can be counted on to espouse far-left social positions vilifying the “one percent” — are themselves part of that cohort. It’s time for American higher education to stop talking pretty socialism while practicing crass commercialism. And to enforce some fiscal restraint on these spendthrifts, state and federal assistance to higher education institutions should be strictly conditioned on their holding the line on tuition increases, and maybe even rolling back the price of college. Let’s make them walk their talk of income equality.
Once our kids and grandkids get out of college, pay off the bondage of student debt and scrape together enough cash to buy a house, they’re still going to face another financial cloud on the horizon: their prospects for a financially sound retirement. Over the next decade, if nothing is done, the Social Security and Medicare systems will tip steeply into the red. They won’t be able to meet their current obligations, let alone accumulate reserves for future retirees. At that point, Congress will face the hard choice of reducing benefits and/or raising taxes.
Rather than waiting until our social safety net programs dangerously weaken, Congress and the president must summon the courage to address looming shortfalls in these programs. With some judicious action now, Social Security and Medicare can be strengthened for the next generation. But if these necessary actions are put off, the result will inevitably be both higher taxes and cuts in future benefits.
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and congressional leaders like my colleague Sen. Pat Moynihan put aside narrow political differences to shore up these programs. They did it together, collaborating on a solution for the good of all Americans. We’ll need that kind of leadership to give Americans — especially our young people just starting out — a future in which taxes and debt aren’t killing us.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.