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A plan to make middle and working classes more thankful

Rod Watson

The Dow Jones Industrial Average cracked 28,000 for the first time this month, sending metaphorical confetti down on Thanksgiving Day parades or, around here, the Turkey Trot.

But if you’re a working- or middle-class New Yorker, how much do you really have to be thankful for despite what a booming stock market is supposed to signify? And what could New York be doing to make your life better?

The answers to those two questions are "not much" and "a lot."

"Despite the rosy rhetoric we hear about a booming stock market and low unemployment, I think the evidence is pretty clear the economy is not working for everyone," said Ron Deutsch, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, the labor-supported Albany think tank.

Deutsch points, for example, to Western New York’s child poverty rates – close to half of Buffalo’s children live in poverty – which have been "stubbornly high for a decade or more."

He cites homelessness and housing affordability as another indicator.

A report from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli earlier this year found that after "almost a full decade of U.S. economic expansion, too many New Yorkers still face real challenges making ends meet," including nearly 2.8 million households that were paying 30% or more of their income for housing, putting them above the benchmark for housing affordability.

The report showed that 46.5% of Erie County renters and 19% of homeowners were above that 30% red line, with similar figures for Niagara County.

It doesn’t have to be this way despite what federal tax policies in the Trump era have done to increase inequality and drive up the deficit. (Remember when Republicans used to care about the deficit?)

Deutsch points out that there are things the state could do to ameliorate the impact of federal policies skewed toward the wealthy, things that would make life better for average New Yorkers.

Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, for instance, has proposed increasing the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit for working people from 30% to 35%. In addition to that bill from the Kenmore Democrat, another proposal would close a loophole in the state’s child tax credit, which currently does not cover children under 4. That proposal also would double the credit for young children.

The institute also proposes expanding the state’s 8.82% "millionaires tax" – which currently tops out at just over $2 million for families – by creating additional brackets at $5 million, $10 million and $100 million.

And what about the contention that the tax drives wealthy people out of New York?

"I think there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary," Deutsch said, adding that since enactment of the tax in 2009 there’s been a 72% increase in the number of millionaire tax filings in the state.

The New York Times reported earlier this year that of the more than 200 members of the Patriotic Millionaires – a group of wealthy people advocating higher taxes on businesses and the superrich – 20% of them live in just one state: New York. They obviously weren't driven out by the tax.

Deutsch also noted that the tax mostly affects the well-heeled in New York City, Long Island and few other locales while leaving Western New York unscathed. Buffalo Niagara, on the other hand, would reap the benefits of programs funded with the new revenue.

Those and other ideas will be explored at a Dec. 9 forum the institute is hosting in Albany. Tax Justice NY: Moving from Austerity to Prosperity will feature a keynote address and panel discussions with experts, including a member of the Patriotic Millionaires.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been among those criticizing any effort to expand the millionaires tax. Such opposition explains Deutsch’s assessment of the governor as trying to portray himself as socially liberal but fiscally conservative – an artifice that works fine until it takes money to carry out your social priorities.

"If you’re going to fight poverty in New York, it’s going to require spending a little more to help people move up the economic ladder," Deutsch said.

The forum will discuss various ways to raise that revenue. One panel also will take up the impact of the Cuomo administration’s 2% cap on most spending growth, which Deutsch said is starving critical programs.

It’s a discussion timed to lay the groundwork for 2020 state budget talks, which will begin shortly after the holidays with the governor’s State of the State speech. But even though Democrats are in total control in Albany, there’s no guarantee any of this will happen as a fight looms between "practical" Democrats and what Howard Dean once called "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."

The outcome will help determine whether New York’s reputation for progressivism is more than just a facade. It also will determine whether, a year from now, middle- and working-class New Yorkers have something more to be thankful for.

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