Public spending is the number one problem. Taxes are too high. And we've got to eliminate regulation. It sounds a lot like the rhetoric of the House's new Republican majority, the folks who strenuously expressed their concern over deficits, then pushed to extend the deficit-ballooning Bush tax for the wealthiest Americans (it looks like infrastructure investment and college aid to low-income students will be on the chopping block instead). But this post isn't about Tea Party Republicans from South Carolina and Kentucky: it's about New York's newly inaugurated Democratic Governor, who made essentially the same arguments in his State of the State address on Wednesday.
New York, like other states hit by nation's massive recession, has faced a steep drop off in tax revenue even as the need for unemployment benefits and other fundamentals of the public safety net has increased costs. The result is a budget shortfall.
Governor Cuomo's answer? Cut income taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers, effectively giving a state-sponsored raise to individuals who already rake in more than $200,000 a year. Even the New York Post admits that the move will push the state billions of dollars further into the red, but it's a price we'll have to pay, Cuomo insists, because: "The working families of New York cannot afford tax increases." After all, the multimillionaires who make New York the most unequal place in the nation should be thought of as workers too -- and the top 5% of earners who now bring home about half the income in the state just can't afford to chip in more.
But low-income New Yorkers who rely on the state for medical treatment apparently have resources to spare. They must brace for billions of dollars in cuts to Medicaid funding. While the state's record number of millionaires count as "working families," families that depend on Medicaid have become "special interests."
The Governor may be right that New York's Medicaid program would benefit from a complete redesign, but the insistence that "this is not going to be a budget cutting or trimming exercise" rings hollow. If the main goal is to eliminate dysfunction and make the program more effective, why begin the process by announcing how much funding will be cut? While Cuomo expressed hope that his new commission would "actually find efficiencies in the program so we actually provide a better service for less money," he made it clear that the "less money" part of the equation would occur regardless of whether service is improved - or even preserved.
Throughout his gubernatorial campaign, Cuomo's signature catchphrase was an insistence that New York could "do more with less." But less than three months have passed since former state Department of Environmental Conservation Pete Grannis was fired for revealing the too frequent reality behind the glib slogan. Grannis’ department, said to be blithely fulfilling its public purpose despite multiple rounds of budget and staff cuts, was in fact conducting fewer hazardous waste clean-ups, reduced oversight of polluters contaminating the air and water, and less frequent mine safety inspections. The further cuts demanded by then Governor Paterson would "result in potential serious risks to human health and safety and environmental quality," Grannis' leaked memo explained. So much for "more with less."
Governor Cuomo's proposals for the public financing of campaigns, nonpartisan redistricting, and marriage equality have real potential to move New York forward. What's more, there is no shortage of ways in which the state is both corrupt and wasteful and in need of reform. But Governor Cuomo doesn't have to mouth Republican talking points - and hurt real New Yorkers in the process - to get rid of the state's Overcoat Development Corporation and put New York on the road to reform.