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Austerity and Equity

Last week marked the beginning of a new governorship in New York and a fresh start for the state as it gears up to continue its battle against the budgetary obstacles inflicted by the recession.
During his “State of the State” address, newly inaugurated Governor Andrew Cuomo marked the beginning of a new legislative session, and laid out his plans for how the state can beat back the projected $10 billion budget gap it currently confronts.
Facing grim fiscal constraints, we can look forward to equally severe decisions in the next budget. Perhaps it is no coincidence that “austerity” was the Merriam-Webster word of the year for 2010.
Across the nation, state and local governments at every level have been looking for ways to trim spending to weather the economic downturn. Unfortunately, even though Wall Street had a record year, New York State as a whole has not fully bounced back.
The question that Governor Cuomo and the new legislature will face is who in the state will bear the burden of these grim decisions?
It was clear from his speech that Governor Cuomo understands and respects the economic hardships New Yorkers have been facing. In his address he spotlighted several working citizens’ personal struggles to stay afloat in lean times.
Among the governor’s formal proposals to be submitted with his official budget on February 1 will inevitably be cuts to healthcare and education, as well as savings achieved by consolidating local government and creating economic councils to spur local development across the state.
These burdens will affect almost all New Yorkers, but middle class New Yorkers the most. Our children’s class sizes will increase, our SUNY and CUNY tuition will rise, our access to nursing home care will decrease, and our mass transit fares will go up.
But my middle class constituents didn’t cause this recession, they didn’t benefit from the financial shenanigans that caused it, and they are not yet feeling the benefit of our slow economic recovery. So why should they be the only ones asked to pony up to get New York State out of its budget mess?
In 2009, we imposed a modest personal income tax surcharge on high-income earners. This surcharge affects only the top 3 percent of income tax filers in New York State, but produced $4 billion in revenue each year.
Unless the governor and legislature renew this surcharge this coming year, lawmakers will have to find healthcare, education and mass transit programs from which to cut further in order to fill the $5 billion the surcharge will produce next year.
Cuts are coming. Imposing them on middle-class New Yorkers without asking the wealthiest 3 percent to share in the sacrifice would be unfair. Although many of these undesirable cuts may be necessary in the long run, the real test of our new government will be how the sacrifices necessary to get our fiscal house in order are shared equitable among all the citizens of the Empire State.

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