A cry of resistance against Cuomo’s cuts

April 6, 2011

Ralph Bean and Petrino DiLeo report on the demonstration in the Capitol building in Albany as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo won approval for his austerity budget.

NEW YORK'S Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed through a state budget that slashes spending on desperately needed social programs and targets public-sector unions for layoffs and big concessions.

But this assault on New York's workers and poor didn't go through without opposition. As the state legislature passed Cuomo's budget behind locked doors on March 30, as many as 1,000 students, workers and community members surged into the state Capitol building in Albany to raise their voices against cutbacks and union-busting.

Cuomo was delivering on campaign promises to balance the state budget by any means necessary--and to take on the very public-sector unions that supported him in last November's election.

The budget includes $55 billion in harsh cuts over the next four years and will result in thousands of layoffs for state and local workers--while letting corporations and New York's wealthiest completely off the hook. Cuomo's cuts come in every part of the budget, ranging from a drastic reduction in spending on Medicaid and education to wage freezes for public-sector workers.

Hundreds of protesters took their demands inside the Capitol building in Albany, N.Y.
Hundreds of protesters took their demands inside the Capitol building in Albany, N.Y.

THE DEMONSTRATORS who filled Capitol and spent the day and night outside the chambers of the state Senate and Assembly chanted "Kill the bill" and "Hey Cuomo, you're the worst, time to put the people first."

Organizers had planned to enter the galleries of the two chambers and slow the voting by protesting when education cuts in particular were discussed. But Capitol officials intervened and locked the doors to the galleries--a violation of the state constitution. They even attempted to block an order of pizza from entering the Capitol--a compromise to allow the food in a designated area was struck only after hungry protesters chanted, "No pizza, no peace!"

Kaithlyn Leigh, a student from SUNY Binghamton, said she came to the Capitol protest because Cuomo's cuts to higher education could force her to drop out of school the next year. Another demonstrator, a citizen action organizer from Buffalo and mother of nine, said she and all her children were at the Capitol because her son's magnet school faced the budget ax and track-and-field programs for her daughters faced elimination as well.

The long list of participating organizations included the Alliance for Quality Education, Citizen Action of New York, International Socialist Organization, New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, Long Island Progressive Coalition, Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, Push-Buffalo, Right to the City New York, Real Rent Reform New York, Community Voices Heard, Save Our SUNY Coalition, Strong Economy for All, Growing Together NY and the Socialist Party.

Unfortunately, organizers weren't in full agreement about what to do once Cuomo's bill passed the Senate and Assembly. Most students wanted to maintain the occupation through the night, but many organizers from Citizen Action and the Alliance for Quality Education intended to lead the occupation out of the Capitol building and into a pre-arranged room in a side-basement of the "concourse," a disappointing and unnecessary retreat.

An assembly called on the "millionaire's staircase" at Midnight could have arrived at a democratic decision for the occupiers to hold the line. That opportunity was lost, though, when the meeting broke down due to the frantic, senseless cries from a handful of "insurrectionists" on the one hand, and the hesitations of liberal organizers on the other. Ultimately, demonstrators decided on a retreat from the Capitol.

Although the occupation of the Capitol may have been too little and too late to stop Cuomo's budget, it was still important that a section of workers and students took up the task of mobilizing a challenge--this time against a Democratic governor who claims to speak for working people, rather than a right-wing Republican like Wisconsin's Scott Walker.

Taisha, an activist from Troy, said that the occupation of the Capitol wouldn't have happened without the example set by Wisconsin workers and students in Madison. Capitol protests can be effective, but now that authorities have been through the experience of Wisconsin, they will need to be organized further ahead and reaching out to broader forces--and demonstrators need to be prepared for lawmakers' and law enforcement's attempt to shut them down, state constitutions or not.

Angelica Clarke, a student at SUNY Albany, said that the newly-founded Save Our SUNY student coalition intends to put out a call for all New York student groups to meet for a summit this summer and plan what to do next. "They're going to try and cut the budget again next year," she said, "and we have to be more organized."

THE PROTESTS were a response to Cuomo's draconian cuts that will punish public-sector workers and any New Yorkers who rely on key government services. The Democratic governor illustrated that austerity remains very much a bipartisan project.

The budget proposes $10 billion in cuts for the 2011-12 fiscal year, with further reductions of $13 billion, $15.4 billion and $17 billion in the following years. The budget bill consolidates 11 state agencies into four, and Cuomo "has directed the Commission to make recommendations to reduce the number of agencies, authorities and commissions by 20 percent over the long term."

Yet while repeatedly talking of "shared sacrifice," the "2011-12 Executive Budget Briefing Book" boasts over and over about how Cuomo's financial plan "does not recommend any tax increases."

Among the cuts in specific areas, school aid and the Medicaid health care program are each slated for reductions of $2.85 billion. Cuomo is carving $1.4 billion from state agency operations and $1.8 billion from other programs and activities. According to the "Budget Briefing Book," reductions in spending will account for nearly 90 percent of the overall gap-closing plan.

The budget continues a long-term assault on New York public workers. As justification for the attacks, Cuomo and state officials claim that public employees receive an average compensation (salary and other pay) of $66,600, with benefits bringing the total to $98,854. According to the state, employee pay has risen by at least 14 percent since 2007.

But Cuomo's not-so-thinly veiled scapegoating of public-sector workers is deceptive. Study after study has shown that public employees make less than private-sector workers once age and education are taken into account. Plus, the government's figures don't reflect the fact that the state has already been successful at reducing pension benefits for more recent hires, creating a two-tier workforce. As a result, the state has an incentive to push the most experienced workers into early retirements in order to reduce labor costs.

Overall, by some estimates, the budget will result in up to 15,000 job losses from state workforce of 190,000 employees.

Nevertheless, Cuomo went out of his way to design a budget that allowed for the expiration of the so-called "millionaire's tax"--a surcharge on New Yorkers who earn more than $200,000 a year. The tax would have resulted in between $4 billion and $5 billion more in revenue--and a small measure of economic justice in a state that has the highest level of inequality in the country, according to a recent study.

Cuomo also rejected implementing New York's stock transfer tax. Currently, banks are charged a tax on stock sales, but the revenue has been automatically rebated back to the bankers. In 2010, the stock transfer tax raised $16 billion--but the money went right back to Wall Street.

Cuomo's budget comes after a long period during which corporations have had their tax burden steadily lowered. According to left-wing economist Rick Wolff:

In 2010 (fiscal year), personal income taxes raised $34.8 billion; sales and excise taxes raised $12.2 billion; and corporate and business profits taxes raised $6.6 billion. Not only do businesses pay a very small portion of the state's total tax take, but business taxes rose less than the other two kinds over the last decade. From 2000 to 2010, personal income taxes rose 50 percent, sales and excise taxes rose 24 percent, and corporate and business taxes rose the least, 20 percent.

If corporate taxes had risen at the same rate as the other forms of taxation, the cuts that Cuomo is imposing would not have been necessary.

But as bad as Cuomo's budget attack is for this year, it doesn't fully take care of future projected deficits. The budget still leaves a combined $9 billion deficit over three years, beginning in 2012. That means New Yorkers can expect another round of proposed cuts next year.

In other words, the fight against budget cuts isn't over. The Capitol protest was a first step, but students and workers now need to continue mobilizing against the implementation of these cuts--and prepare for the attacks to come.

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