New York State's proposed $2.4 billion School Facility Health and Safety Bond Act sounds like a can't-miss proposition. After all, who could possibly be opposed to "health and safety" -- especially where schoolchildren are concerned?
No one argues with the need to invest in maintaining and modernizing public school buildings. The real issue, however, is how these investments should be financed. The proposed bond act is the most expensive and least effective way to do it.
Although you wouldn't know it from listening to supporters of the bond act, New York State already subsidizes local school construction projects through building-aid payments to school districts. And the amounts involved are not exactly small change. Between 1987 and 1997, the state funneled a total of nearly $4.1 billion into school building aid. In the 1997-98 fiscal year alone, building aid will reach a record level of $775 million -- nearly triple the amount spent as recently as 1990.
Building aid is distributed according to a formula that takes into account each district's relative wealth. This year's state budget included a provision that will add 10 percent to the building-aid ration for most school districts. What this means in the case of Buffalo, for example, is that next year the state will reimburse 94 percent of the city's school construction costs, compared to 84 percent this year.
Given the already massive commitment of state funds to local school-building projects, would the money raised by the proposed bond be distributed according to a different formula? Would it pay for projects that are already on the drawing board? How much would be targeted to districts in Western New York and other upstate regions?
Unfortunately, we don't know the answer to any of these questions. In a striking departure from past practice, the Legislature voted to put the school bond proposition on the ballot without first passing a statute detailing how the money will be allocated.
New York taxpayers are now being asked to sign a $2.4 billion loan agreement that will oblige them to pay over $2 billion in added interest over the next 20 years -- with absolutely no assurance that the new money will be spent wisely or fairly.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the liberal Democrat from Manhattan who is the chief proponent of the bond act, is essentially asking voters to trust him to do the right thing with their money. He has pledged that no more than 40 percent of the bond proceeds will go to New York City, where the state's most dilapidated school buildings are concentrated. He also has said the funds should be distributed by the Board of Regents -- an appointive body answerable mainly to Assembly Democrats.
Compounding the uncertainty over how the money will be allocated under the bond act is the enormous potential it creates for fiscal abuse. Under current law, state building aid is doled out on a pay-as-you-go basis. However, there is nothing to stop the Legislature from using the state bond-act proceeds as a substitute for the existing building-aid appropriations. This is the kind of typical Albany budget gimmick, perfected under former Gov. Mario Cuomo, that earned New York one of the nation's lowest bond ratings.
While we don't know how the bond money will be allocated, we do know that some of the state's school construction money is already being misspent.
For example, school districts across New York are now forced to waste up to $85 million a year to comply with asbestos-removal standards that are completely unnecessary from a health-and-safety standpoint, according to the state Education Department.
Gov. Pataki wanted to let school districts conform with less costly federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards for asbestos abatement, which already govern all private-sector building projects in New York. But acting at the behest of contractors and unions that benefit from the status quo, Speaker Silver killed Pataki's proposal this year -- and so the waste in this area will continue.
In the final analysis, it seems clear that school construction needs in New York State can be addressed fairly and effectively under the existing building-aid program. After all, while New York City continues to have major school-building problems, it has embarked on a four-year, $5 billion capital plan to correct them. And most upstate and suburban school districts already have spent heavily to maintain and upgrade their school buildings.
Our children deserve the best school buildings we can afford. But they shouldn't be saddled with billions of dollars in unnecessary new state debt to pay for them.
Assemblyman JOHN J. FASO, R-Columbia County, is ranking minority member of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.