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Cuomo makes last-minute plea to Congress for aid

Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a last-ditch appeal to federal lawmakers for aid.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has written a letter to New York’s congressional delegation, urging them not to settle for a federal stimulus package that does not include aid to states hard hit by the coronavirus. The plea comes as talks between House Democrats and Senate Republicans in Washington are down to the wire.

For months, the governor has asked Congress to provide funding to make up for the state’s plummeting revenues and pandemic-related expenses. The governor, in the letter, said the package being negotiated is the most important piece of federal legislation he’s had to deal with in his nine years as governor.

“This bill, it will basically determine the state budget,” Cuomo said. “You will know what the state budget is when this bill passes.”

The governor says the state faces a $14 billion deficit in the current fiscal year, and $16 billion next year, and without federal funds, he’ll have to slash schools, hospitals and local government aid by 20%.

The MTA has a $12 billion deficit, and Cuomo said subway and other fares might have to be raised if there’s no relief. He says the Port Authority’s $3 billion gap jeopardizes renovation projects at JFK and LaGuardia airports.

When New York City’s deficit is factored in, the governor says the total gap rises to $50 billion.   

Democrats in Congress favor helping the states and many cities make up for their pandemic-related losses, but Republicans do not. Cuomo said he’s asking the state’s congressional members not to agree to a final package that doesn't offer enough to New York.

“Don’t vote for a bill that’s not fair to New York,” Cuomo said. “That’s the bottom line here.”

Signing their own letter are 110 state senators and Assembly members who are advocating for imposing higher taxes on New York’s wealthy before implementing any state budget cuts.

Cuomo was asked during the conference call about the lawmakers' proposal to increase taxes on the state’s 118 billionaires. He said each billionaire would need to be taxed an additional half-billion dollars to total the $50 billion gap, and it still would not bring in enough money to cover all the debt.

“That means you would have no (more) billionaires,” Cuomo said with a laugh.

Advocates for higher taxes on the wealthy said the governor is misrepresenting their proposals.

Michael Kink with the Strong Economy for All Coalition said the proposal includes adding slightly higher tax brackets for billionaires, which could bring in $5.5 billion. But he says an additional $13 billion per year could be raised simply by reinstating an existing tax known as the stock transfer tax.

“New York used to have a sales tax on stock trades, the way we have sales taxes on a cup of coffee or a bag of groceries,” Kink said. “And that is rebated now.”

He said no new tax would need to be created -- the rebate would just end.

Kink said in every other economic downturn going back to the Great Depression, New York’s governors have raised taxes on the wealthy.

“And it’s worked,” Kink said. “We brought in money for the state, and we’ve been able to avoid the kind of harsh cuts that really hurt regular people.”

Cuomo counters that the COVID-19 pandemic is different. He said wealthy business leaders are working from their homes in the Hamptons, upstate, or even out of state, and are no longer subject to New York City’s income tax surcharge. He said he’s trying to convince them to come back to New York, and he said the prospect of higher taxes will make that move even less appealing.

The governor's budget director, Robert Mujica, agrees. Mujica said New York already has the second-highest taxes on the wealthy in the nation.

“The only alternative we have is really for the federal government to provide the assistance,” Mujica said. “Because there is not a way to tax your way out of this problem.”

State legislative leaders are more open to the idea of raising taxes on the rich to balance the budget than is the governor.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said for months that he favors first looking to raising revenue from the state’s ultra-wealthy before cutting aid to schools and hospitals.  

For the first time Wednesday, the leader of the New York State Senate said definitively that she would support raising taxes on wealthier New Yorkers. Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement that “this crisis calls for multimillionaires and billionaires to help our state shoulder this extraordinary burden.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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