WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY — January 12, 2020 — The annual State of the State ritual put New York’s economic trilemma on display. We have three tribes marching in three incompatible directions. And we have 80 days to sort it out.
We face on old problem — a massive budget shortfall — with a new political dynamic. We aspire to a growing, prosperous state. Can we find a way to pay for our aspirations? Will conservatives and moderates address the unfair tax advantages the state has given the wealthy? Will progressives be able to produce enough revenue to close the gap without targeting middle-class taxpayers? Will the real Andrew Cuomo finally stand up?
Tribe One is the remnants of the Republican Party. Unfortunately, they are hopelessly out of touch with economic and social reality. Upstate remains in economic crisis and is subsidized; downstate prospers and sends money to impoverished rural and urban communities, fending off social collapse. The initial Republican response is the phony-baloney assertion that “high taxes” and “crushing regulation” are “destroying our state.” If that were true, downstate would not be the economic juggernaut funding upstate schools and hospitals. Tribe One has become irrelevant.
Tribe Two is the newly ascendant Democratic majorities in both houses. They are actually coalitions, although the progressive wing dominated in 2019. They had a good first year. Most of their accomplishments were on nonbudget issues like rent regulation, undocumented driver’s licenses, and sexual harassment reform. Now they face a yawning chasm of a budget deficit, largely caused by the important and generous expansion of health care and education programs and tax cuts for the wealthy. Their initial response is to find clever and politically viable ways to soak the rich: millionaire’s tax, estate tax, pied-a-terre tax, etc. The problem is that even if those were enacted, there’s not enough money to fill the hole, much less pay for a wish list of additional spending.
The real money flows only if you tax middle- and upper-middle-class taxpayers. But the Democratic majorities rely on legislators representing these folks as well. Progressives and moderates are either headed toward conflict or headed toward compromise. Tribe Two has some fundamental decision-making on its plate.
Tribe Three isn’t really a tribe. It’s Cuomo. Figuring him out ain’t easy. Since he became governor there have been two incarnations. His first term gave us a “progractionary” leader, way left on social issues and way right on tax-and-spend policies. His second term gave us a governor supportive of minimum wage increases and expanded health care and education spending. Now the bill is coming due and we are $6 billion short. Can he strong-arm support for budget cuts? Is he a progressive or not? Who knows?
Absent a thunderbolt, the Tribe One Republicans will be irrelevant, mumbling right-wing nostrums as their numbers decrease. Tribe Two Democrats will discover that they will either have to compromise or fall victim to a Cuomo attempt to split them apart. Tribe Three will finally take a side, probably against the progressive base and without the political cover of his cherished Republican Senate. Will the real Andrew Cuomo stand up?
By April 1, 80 days from now, we should have a resolution. The governor will use his dictatorial budget powers to bludgeon the Democratic majorities. The Democratic majorities will have to chose an identity. The Republicans will march off into oblivion. Three tribes with three different goals and ideas will give us one budget. It will be politically bloody, but it’s doable.
# # #
Richard Brodsky is a former state Assembly member.
# # # # #
Original publication by Times-Union on January 12, 2020.