Fool’s Errand? Tax Cap Activists Due Today To Test the Legislators at Albany

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The New York Sun

The battle to gain a cap on taxes on property will come to Albany this afternoon, when activists are due to meet with the chiefs-of staff of the state’s most prominent Democrats — and aspire to meet with Governor Cuomo and Speaker Sheldon Silver themselves. On its face their mission might seem a fool’s errand, but in with the way political realities are shifting, their schedule provides a window to on a new phenomenon — fiscally responsible Democrats.

The Democrats in question reside not in Washington but rather in localities where one may still not legally print money. Wisconsin and Ohio Republicans have drawn hellfire for similar fiscal prudence, and Wisconsin and Indiana Democratic legislators have simply fled their states rather than do anything at all. In our northeastern quadrant, Democrats cannot easily hide behind Republican majorities, for there they come few and far between.

These Democrats must take action—or, at least, appear to take action. So we are hearing some melodious tunes from the Democratic choruses. In Massachusetts, where personnel costs constitute 75% of local municipal budgets and municipal health costs have grown nearly 11% annually,, the Massachusetts House voted 111-42 vote (with 81 Democrats in the affirmative) to divest policemen, firefighters, teachers, and other municipal employees of collective-bargaining powers regarding most health-care benefits.

“Our current fiscal climate demands that we move in this direction. I can no longer permit our residents to suffer because we are so slow to progress . . . ,” said the Speaker, Robert A. DeLeo, “we have yet to hear a better solution to municipal cost control. We must move forward.”

In Rhode Island, Governor Chaffee, a Republican in name only who turned Independent, proposed $165 in increased taxation. “Before we go to the taxpayers and say we need to increase your taxes, we need to build some credibility with them to say that we have turned over every stone, every nickel and dime,” Speaker Gordon Fox, a Democrat, informed his fellow House members. His 65-Democrat, 10-Republican House tendered Fox a standing ovation.

In Maryland, the Democratic chief executive, Martin O’Malley, has proposed increasing the contribution of state employees to their woefully-underfunded pension plans to 7% from 5% and raising the minimum term of service for pension vesting to ten years from five. Mr. O’Malley has opposed extending a 0.75% additional tax on incomes exceeding $1 million.

This is the context in which the activists are meeting with the Democrats here in Albany. Members of the New York chapter of Americans for Prosperity, led by western New York-based coordinator Lisa Thrun, along with the group Long Island Tax Reform, will in late morning be addressed by a quartet of Republican legislators — Senate Education Committee Chairman John Flanagan, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, and assemblymen Mike Fitzpatrick and Michael A. Montesano.

Earlier in the year Governor Cuomo confounded observers by not only reducing spending by $10 billion and initiating efforts to reform the nation’s highest Medicaid costs, but also resisting pressures to retain his state’s expiring so-called “millionaire’s tax.” The pressures emanated not only from public and private unions and Democrats in the legislature, but also from polling that indicated 64% of the public opposed him on the latter issue. Mr. Cuomo won anyway.

Now, aligned with the Republican-controlled Senate, he battles intractable Assembly Democrats, for a statewide property tax cap, which will restrict annual property tax levy growth to 2% or 120% of inflation, whichever is less. School district tax increases above the cap would require 60% approval with a simple majority still required to approve any tax levy below the cap. If voters reject a tax levy twice, the levy is capped at the prior year’s level.

“I am a progressive Democrat who’s broke,” Mr. Cuomo told the New York Times, positing, “I disagree with the concept that the only way to get better services is more money, more money, more money. We’ve been spending a lot more money. We’re not getting better services.”

We have heard this song before. FDR’s 1932 Democratic platform advocated “an immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus, and eliminating extravagance to accomplish a saving of not less than twenty-five per cent” of the federal budget. President Clinton famously promised that “the era of big government is over.” Such moments proved, however, to be transitory rest stops along the route to Leviathan’s toll booth.

Do these Democrats mean, or merely mouth, the lyrics they now sing? Even Lenin instituted his “New Economic Policy” when he recognized that before you redistribute wealth, someone must actually create it. Mr. Cuomo and his allies remain “progressive Democrats,” not conservative Republicans, and they institute reforms only because Speaker Boehner et al have stopped spending China’s hard-earned money on propping up fiscally-unsustainable state and local governments—and public employee unions.

But it’s all still a nice tune to hear even some Democrats singing.

The New York Sun

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