Misdirection is an old and very useful tactic among magicians and comedians. It involves distracting your audience with one thing (a boldly colored handkerchief, a long set-up narrative) while the real action takes place hidden from view. Only when the audience is least prepared can the performer spring his trap: the punch line is delivered, a fuzzy bunny materializes out of thin air. For its powers to distract and manipulate misdirection is preferred also by successful pickpockets.
In 2009, Albany used enough misdirection in state government to put any pickpocket to shame. New Yorkers, who already pay some of the highest combined taxes in the country, were subjected to over $8 billion in new and increased taxes and fees in the 2009 state budget, which raised spending nearly 10 percent above the previous year’s level. As a result, the average family of four will pay an extra $2,362.77 in higher taxes and fees this year. State leaders embarked on this fiscal suicide march only after issuing dire public warnings about New York’s long-term deficits. Following this record tax and spending increase – measures I voted against – we were told that robust tax collections would deflate our ballooning debt. But state revenues continued to fall. And an economic collapse that began in New York City’s financial services industry spread malignantly across the Empire State. The shell game continued last month, when Governor Paterson’s Deficit Reduction Plan, marketed as a $3.2 billion fix, fell $500 million short thanks to petty politics and ineffective leadership. Federal education funds, appropriated for next year’s budget, were used to blot up the red ink. School districts were told their obligated payments would not suffer. This money was deferred or suspended indefinitely. Misdirection had worked.
Despite warnings I issued last March along with many of my colleagues, the fiscal tremors felt by the state since Governor Paterson’s $132 billion budget passed have shaken our institutions to their foundations. New Yorkers no longer expect credible results from their state government, and with a record like the Majority party’s in 2009, I don’t blame them. Families and businesses in the Hudson Valley need more jobs in their region, a healthier economic environment for investors, and greater consumer lending to small-business owners. Thanks to the policies of Governor Paterson and his legislative allies, there has been no return on their record government spending.
A look back on 2009 reveals a pattern of high-spending, high-taxing behavior by Albany’s “three men in a room.” The Legislature’s Majority increased the cost of living on your property, lighting or heating homes, driving to work, going outdoors, and buying groceries to feed your family. What follows is a (short) list of their legislative low-lights.
- Property taxpayers took a big hit with the elimination of the STAR property tax rebate checks. On average, these STAR rebate checks saved homeowners $386 and seniors $458 on their property tax bills.
- Consumers saw their energy taxes soar by $520 million as part of the utility assessment tax. New Yorkers can expect to pay an extra $114 in power bills in 2010.
- DMV fees were hiked by 25 percent on driver licenses and vehicle registrations and a much-publicized scheme was pushed to force motorists to needlessly pay for new license plates.
- New Yorkers visiting state parks had to pay more in camping fees ($13 to $15), cabin rentals (15 percent hike), golfing (15 percent increase), marina rentals (25 percent hike), and for the popular Empire Pass ($59 to $65).
- An ill-conceived change to the state’s drug laws means 700 convicted drug criminals – including drug dealers who sold to children – now can apply for re-sentencing and possibly be sprung from state prisons thanks to a little-known provision in the new law.
- The perversely titled “Bigger Better Bottle Bill” was passed, adding a 5 cent returnable deposit to water bottles and flavored water and increasing the bottle-handling fee paid by distributors from 3 cents a container to 3.5 cents a container – an additional $2.04 for a 24-pack of bottled water.
Has a single one of these measures improved the quality of life for families and taxpayers in the Hudson Valley? Has the long-term deficit outlook changed as a result of tax gimmicks and cost shifts to the counties and municipalities? Albany’s career politicians must begin to seriously address the concerns felt by New Yorkers in 2010. There is no margin for error, and there is no excuse for evasion. A year of magical thinking, in which talking is as good as doing and partisanship masquerades as leadership, has delivered us to this low point. This has to change. I will continue to work with my colleagues to make sure that 2010 is the year in which clear-headed reform replaces misdirection once and for all.