Richard Iannuzzi: The Inconvenient Truth About Taxes

Jan 24, 2014

If you’ve been following the Governor’s missives on tax cuts…reports from his tax commissions, his State of the State message and news about his budget proposal… you undoubtedly know that he is proposing sweeping tax cuts.  The potential is for upwards of $2 billion for his tax cut package that includes proposed reductions for property owners, businesses, renters and upstate manufacturers.

In many circles, the Governor’s feel-good, tax-cutting message is sure to be popular in an election year.

At times like this, however, I’m reminded of the wisdom expressed by Oliver Wendell Holmes, the 19th century jurist whose profound words about taxes are inscribed on the IRS building in Washington.  “Taxes,” Holmes said, “are what we pay for a civilized society.”

Considering today’s realities, when you examine the tax issue more closely the case for new tax cuts fails.

Our state, after all, is still recovering from the Great Recession.  While the economy seems to be improving, it’s not improving for everybody.  Too many New Yorkers live in poverty, can’t find a job or are trying to dig their way out of debt.  The safety net that is supposed to protect New York’s poor and vulnerable is frayed and torn.  You can find evidence of it everywhere, especially in hard-hit towns and cities upstate.

In education, nearly 70 percent of the state’s school districts are operating today with less state support than in 2008-2009.  Total state aid is $300 million less than five years ago, and there are tens of thousands fewer teachers and paraprofessionals in classrooms helping children learn.  In higher education, our excellent network of public institutions — SUNY, CUNY and community colleges — has been devastated by year after year of program and staff cuts. These deep and painful budget cuts to education and healthcare at all levels hit just as the demands on our schools, colleges and healthcare facilities were increasing.

In today’s world, any realistic definition of what Holmes meant by a civilized society would have to include an opportunity to educate all our citizens to their highest potential and plan long-term for society’s needs by investing in programs that will provide the skills required to succeed well into the future.

While I am encouraged to hear the Governor talk about state aid increases for public education, and expanding full-day pre-kindergarten statewide, the inconvenient truth is that it will be extraordinarily difficult — and very risky — to attempt to both cut taxes and, at the same time, make significant new and sustainable investments in schools and colleges.

You need only look into the recent past to find a time when tax cuts and giveaways to big business left New York State in crisis, short of the revenue it required to fund education, health care and other vital public services.

New York State needs to think long-term.  It should think very carefully about embracing the short-term, good feelings that come with tax cuts, and think realistically about what might be accomplished if Albany instead embraced the wave of progressive politics beginning to swell in many parts of our state and nation. A state fully invested in achieving equity and opportunity, while extending a helping hand to our fellow citizens in need, is an ideal for which we must strive.

That’s what Oliver Wendell Holmes meant by a civilized society.  And, that’s what New Yorkers expect and deserve from the Empire State.

Richard C. Iannuzzi is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

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