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Editorial: Cuomo must save New York from itself

Last in a series of editorials

With his inauguration Tuesday to his third term as New York’s governor, Andrew M. Cuomo seems primed for action, much of it beneficial to New York. He wants to reform the state’s archaic voting laws, close the preposterous LLC loophole that acts as an invitation to corruption and to sign the Child Victims Act, which is expected to pass in the Legislature.

He is also focused on the health and safety of New Yorkers, pushing for a carbon neutral state by 2040 and for a longer waiting period before buying guns and a ban on bump stocks, which allow semiautomatic weapons to function like illegal machine guns. All are valuable goals.

But what Cuomo hasn’t spoken about in sufficient detail is a problem that has bedeviled New York for decades and which remains a knife at the state’s throat: the high costs of living and doing business here. That stubborn fact takes money from residents’ bank accounts and weakens their influence in Washington.

Cuomo understands this. He came into office eight years ago girded for a fight over a variety of issues, from property taxes to ethics to job creation. He has made notable efforts in some of those areas and can count some successes, including the property tax cap and income tax cuts. Among his goals for his new term are more tax breaks for the middle class and making the tax cap permanent.

That’s good, but it’s not enough. The fact is that New York continues to suffer and the proof is in the number of people saying goodbye. A December report by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that New York was one of just nine states to lose residents over the past year, even as the national population grew by 0.6 percent.

New York is now the nation’s fourth-most populous state falling in recent years from second (to California, which remains at the top) as both Texas and Florida both surpassed it. All three of those states gained population over the previous year, even as New York continued to shed residents, leaving fewer people behind to shoulder the tax burden.

Accompanying that decline is a loss in federal clout, since congressional representation is a function of population. New York lost two representatives following the 2010 census and is likely to lose at least one more in next year’s count. (The state’s population is actually up from 2010, but the increase is anemic compared to other states.)

People leave for a number of reasons, but prominent among them are the related problems of high costs and lack of opportunities. New York’s cumulative tax burden is among the highest in the country, a fact that helps to drive up other costs. Gasoline costs much less in other states, for example, largely because of state taxes. Power costs are also high in New York.

This is a hard nut to crack in New York, where special interests have a death grip on government. Public sector unions don’t allow any reforms of the Taylor Law, which governs labor in New York and favors unions over taxpayers.

Trial lawyers covet the Scaffold Law, which drives up construction costs by holding contractors automatically liable if a worker falls from a height. At this point, the law doesn’t make New York any safer – the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has put teeth into worker safety regulations – but when a worker is hurt in a fall, the law makes for an easy claim by the injured employee and an all-but-guaranteed payday for the lawyer representing him.

Those laws survived even when Republicans controlled the Senate. Today, with Democrats in charge across the board in state government, that chances for change seem slimmer than ever.

But, there is this: As congressional Republicans learned in November, when one party holds all the power, voters who are dissatisfied know whom to blame. It’s true that New York is a left-leaning state, based largely on the downstate influence. But people will eventually stop voting against their own interests; if opportunities continue to lag upstate and costs around New York continue to hover at painful levels, voters will know where to point.

Cuomo is the one who can make a difference. He has the bully pulpit and he knows these problems are real. With two terms under his belt, he is a master of Albany’s ins and outs. We hope he makes a mission of reclaiming this state for its struggling, and evaporating, middle class.

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