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Daily News

The tale of two Cuomos

Bill Hammond
Tuesday, December 6, 2011

 

The hallway outside Gov. Cuomo’s office is filled with drop cloths and paint fumes these days as workers scramble to complete renovations Cuomo ordered up a few weeks ago.
 
Also undergoing a rather sudden makeover is the man inside that office, who has shifted his position on state taxes faster than you can say “Occupy Wall Street.”
 
The final verdict on both rehab projects will have to wait until the dust settles. But one thing already seems clear: The new Cuomo will not be the same fiscal hawk some of us thought we elected.
 
The old Cuomo understood that the main thing wrong with New York’s taxes is that they rank among the very highest in the country, sapping the state’s economy and hobbling its competitiveness.
 
The new Cuomo contends the primary flaw in the tax code is its alleged lack of “fairness” — and borrows the occupiers’ misleading rhetoric to make the case. In fact, New York’s tax code is one of the most progressive in the country, with people in the top 10% paying more than 62% of all income taxes, and people at the bottom paying little or nothing.
 
The old Cuomo flatly opposed any extension of the so-called millionaire’s tax — which actually kicked in for some taxpayers at incomes above $200,000 and was supposed to expire on Dec. 31.
 
The new Cuomo is actively promoting a modified version of the millionaire’s tax, albeit coupled with tax cuts for the middle class.
 
The old Cuomo insisted on closing budget deficits with spending cuts only, recognizing that state government had become too bloated for taxpayers to afford and that we had to tighten our belts when it came to lavish pensions and Cadillac health care benefits.
 
The new Cuomo is pushing for new revenue to make ends meet — acting as if all the governmental bloat is gone, and further spending cuts would hit only bone.
 
The old Cuomo was ready to rumble with Albany lawmakers and special-interest groups that opposed his agenda — and to make aggressive use of his constitutional powers to force through a budget that was to his liking.
 
The new Cuomo is preaching the virtues of cooperation, compromise and avoiding gridlock at all costs.
 
To be sure, what the new Cuomo aims to do is far from radical, and unlikely to cause immediate disaster.
 
While he has yet to provide full specifics, his outline calls for setting new tax rates on the upper middle class and the wealthy that would be lower than they are right now — but, it is important to note, higher than they would be if the surcharge simply expires at the end of this year.
 
Meanwhile, he would cut taxes for people lower down on the economic ladder, and use the remaining revenue, combined with spending cuts, to close a projected $3.5 billion budget deficit for next year.
 
Insisting that he remains a true fiscal conservative, Cuomo would hold overall budget growth to no more than 2%.
 
The new Cuomo will have an easy time selling this package to the people — and perhaps Albany insiders.
 
But what gets lost is a key plank of the old Cuomo’s campaign platform that remains just as valid today: Albany spends and taxes far too much while delivering far too little.
 
What also gets lost is any respect for democratic procedure. Cuomo is apparently angling for lawmakers to take up and pass his tax reform — which, to be clear, he has yet to put in writing or share with the public — as early as this week, and hopefully before Christmas.
 
That is absurd. Overhauling the state’s entire tax code, with billions of dollars at stake, is not something to be squeezed in between shopping trips to the mall. It’s serious business that demands serious, thoughtful consideration and debate.
 
New York’s Constitution provides a step-by-step procedure for making large-scale decisions about revenue and spending. It’s called the budget process. Cuomo should use it.
 
Cuomo does deserve credit for being the most fiscally conservative governor New York has seen in a long time. He has held spending growth down to the level of inflation, won significant cuts in Medicaid, consolidated state agencies, pushed through a cap on property taxes and won big concessions from state labor unions in contract talks.
 
For his first year, skeptics who thought Cuomo would turn out to be a typical, big-spending Democrat were forced to eat crow. He should not prove them right now.

 

 

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