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Occupy protests help (re)ignite tax debate

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Karen DeWitt / NY Public Radio

Before it even began, Occupy Albany was imbued with its first agenda item. Press reports last Friday talked about the “millionaires’ tax” as an issue for Occupiers before they'd even shown up. The tax is a big one for left-leaning groups and organized labor who have been pushing for its continuation of on higher-income earners.

Governor Cuomo has said he wants to do away with the tax, but many inside and outside the protests point to recent polls showing the majority of New Yorkers support keeping the revenue stream.

Over the weekend there was more friction between the Governor’s office and the mayor of Albany than between protesters and police. The Governor’s push of Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings to evict the curfew-breaking protesters was an indication to some observers that the protests were getting to the governor.

“The coverage of his push to get Occupy Albany shut down shows how close to home that’s hitting,” said one observer close to the issue. “There’s clearly a concern on their part, internally, that it’s going to escalate in a way that makes it difficult for him.”

Are the Occupations, which have now spread throughout the state, enough to get the Governor to change his mind on the continuation of taxes on higher-income earners? People in support of the move certainly hope so.

“The whole Occupy movement has really been creating a dialogue on social and economic justice issues, and clearly the millionaires’ tax is part of that dialogue,” said Ron Deutsch, executive director of New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness, which has been calling for a continuation of the higher taxes.

That dialogue was almost non-existent a month ago. The sunsetting of the millionaires tax had been an agenda item for the Governor’s office and, with the national conversation about budget focusing almost entirely on cuts, the idea of a popular push for higher taxes—championed by Cuomo—was hard to imagine. But Occupy Wall Street changed the narrative, reviving the issue.

“That Occupy movement is really drawing increased attention to the unfairness of what's happening in the economy right now and the need of the state to do something about it,” said Karen Sharff, the executive director of Citizen Action of New York, “The millionaires’ tax being one of those things the state can do.”

Right now, support for continuing the policy is coming from only one part of the triad of state government: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The Speaker has said he wants the tax extended, but won’t go so far as to threaten the budget process—the only real political maneuver at his disposal right now—to push the issue.

Still, with the renewed focus on the issue, some are hoping Silver will make hay will the political sun shines.

“I think that speaker silver is not going to let the issue go,” said Richard Iannuzzi, the New York State United Teachers union president. “He's going to keep it in the political forefront."

Even with the political tied turning in favor of those supporting a millionaires’ tax, the chance of getting it past the Republican-controlled State Senate is slim. But things look good in the Senate—there have been some rumblings among Senate Republicans—compared to the situation in the statehouse.

“I don't see the Governor changing his mind on the [millionaires' tax]. He’s said repeatedly and clearly he wants the higher rates to go away," Bob Ward, the deputy director of the University of Albany’s Rockefeller Institute, said. “The budget situation is not great, but it's probably manageable without a significant change in tax policy and he's—as a matter of personal philosophy and political position if you will—I suspect he's pretty well locked in to where he is right now."

That doesn’t mean the Occupiers in Albany and elsewhere won’t continue to make it an issue. On Thursdays a march in support of continuing the millionaires’ tax will occur in Albany, coordinated alongside the Occupy Albany actions. The sanctioned press people for the Occupation make it clear the millionaires’ tax is not something they’re officially calling for. But given the Governor’s response to their protests and the momentum they bring to the issue, it might not be something they can escape.

And if it happens, it might become their first unintentional policy victory.