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Millionaire's Tax Giveback Proves No Progressives in Albany

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If our "leaders" in Albany pass a budget that gives back $4.6 billion to the wealthiest residents of state - a state which already suffers extraordinary wealth disparity - it will say only a little about our governor, and much more about a weakened political culture in New York that has allowed our state to stray from its progressive past.

Governor Andrew Cuomo never pretended to like the income tax surcharge on New Yorker's wealthiest residents. During his campaign, he never claimed he'd extend it. Once elected, he made clear his intention to let it lapse. So it's no surprise that he worked out a budget deal that doesn't include it.

It's not a shock. But it is an outrage.

"The Millionaire's Tax," as it's called, is good policy. It allows us to invest more in our schools. It allows us to restore funds to critical state programs for seniors and working families. And it does so by asking the top three percent of the state's earners to pay more of their fair share.

This is a tax that the wealthiest New Yorkers were already paying, so the phantom threat that they'd move out of the state sounds more hollow than ever. The Governor even would have escaped the dreaded attack that he had "raised taxes" or "created new taxes" because this tax was already on the books. But he was committed to the pledge he made to his corporate allies at the so-called "Committee to Save New York" - that in a time that called for shared sacrifice, he wouldn't ask them to do their share.

The politics would have been on his side. Most Americans agreed that it would be better to end the Bush-era tax cuts rather than cut important government programs. While our Democratic president capitulated on that fight, Governor Cuomo could have brought the battle to the state level. He could have spoken about a culture of investment, not just "austerity" measures. He could have argued that severe cuts today jeopardizes our state tomorrow. He could have pointed out that the wealthiest are aggregating historic amounts of wealth and paying back less and less of it. In short, he could have used this as a moment, backed by popular demand, to make a case for progressive governance.

Instead he retreated. He adopted a conservative framework for governing. He took the route of Chris Christie. But more important than the politics and optics of it will be the results: He's hurting the people of New York.

New York could and should be the forefront of progressive policy. We should be the state other states emulate. During the Great Depression, Roosevelt took many of his ideas from programs New York had pioneered. We are already a leader in business, media and the arts. But when it comes to politics, we're acting more like followers - adopting the approach of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Governor Christie in New Jersey by balancing our budgets on the back of working families.

There are groups fighting the good fight. Elected officials from around the state have pleaded to extend the Millionaire's Tax. The Alliance for Quality Education is camping out at the Capital. Actor-turned-activist Mark Ruffalo has joined the cause on behalf of New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness. There is still a chance that the Democratic caucuses in both houses in Albany, and the handful of allies in the Republican majority of the State Senate, will find a way to keep the fight going.

But if a $4.6 billion tax cut for the wealthiest three percent of our state comes to pass, what next? The Governor feels invulnerable; he didn't need a progressive base to get elected and he's not scared of them now. The Democrats who go along with the budget will argue they had no choice so there's no way to hold them accountable. And Republicans can't be blamed for serving the special interests who are their base.

Sadly, it's unlikely that any politicians will lose their jobs over this ridiculous policy; while many regular New Yorkers will lose theirs. Maybe the labor movement, education advocates and activists for fiscal fairness will bring the spirit of Madison to Albany. Maybe the hard-charging Progressive Caucus of the City Council will push for an increase in municipal taxes (which would still require state approval). Maybe this will fire up activists like US Uncut to target Governor Cuomo.

But with this budget, New York has already given up its proud legacy as a leader among states. And the voters of New York will need to seek new champions -- because while we may have Democrats in office, we don't have progressive leaders.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."