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We want our governor to make sure that the money is in the budget to protect the children!

Tax the rich or cuts to schools?

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The state budget is due in just three weeks. Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed deep cuts to New York public schools and districts here in the North Country are contemplating widespread teacher lay-offs. But a coalition of activists and educators say the state's highest income earners should pay more taxes to fund education programs and other state spending. Karen Dewitt reports from Albany.

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Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

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This week, hundreds of parents of school children from low income neighborhoods descended on the Capitol, chanting and demanding to meet with Governor Andrew Cuomo to argue against his proposed $1.5 billion dollars in cuts to schools.

“We want Cuomo,” they shouted.

The protesters, organized by the pro- school funding group Alliance for Quality Education and teacher unions, were told by state troopers that they could not enter the hallway leading to the governor’s offices, and would have to drop off their letters at a mail drop a quarter mile away, which angered the demonstrators.

Advocates for restoring the school funding have focused their fight on extending a temporary income tax surcharge on the wealthy, New Yorkers making more than $200,000 a year, which is set to expire at the end of 2010. At a rally, Senator Bill Perkins, a Democrat, told the protesters that it’s essential to keep the surcharge in the spending plan. 

“We want our governor to make sure that the money is in the budget to protect the children,” he told the enthusiastic crowd. “Put the money in the budget!”

Democrats in the Assembly have made the biggest effort to extend the so-called millionaire’s tax in the new budget. 70 members have signed on to a letter  expressing their support.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, says he “wholeheartedly agrees” with the majority of his Democratic conference that the wealthiest New Yorkers should not be getting a tax break while “we are cutting teachers from our classrooms, closing senior centers and reducing aid to CUNY and SUNY.” Silver has already signaled that the extension of the tax will be part of the Assembly’s one house budget plan, to be released March 15th .

“We’re unequivocally for it,” Silver said.

Governor Cuomo and most Senate Republicans oppose extending the tax on the state’s wealthiest, and the Speaker in recent weeks has sought to tamp down expectations that the Assembly Democrats can succeed in convincing Cuomo and the Senate GOP to go along with it.

“The likelihood of it actually being put into law, I recognize, are pretty poor,” said the Speaker.

Governor Cuomo, meanwhile, is stepping up his campaign to convince the legislature to approve a budget without any new taxes, including the so called millionaire’s tax. The governor took to the airwaves himself, in this new ad, financed by the state’s Democratic Party, saying he’s proposed a budget with “no new taxes”.

“That’s right, with no new taxes,” Cuomo says in the ad.

Robo calls with Cuomo reading the same script will go out to millions of New York households in the coming weeks, urging them to contact their state legislators.

The governor’s allies, business and real estate leaders who have formed the Committee to Save New York, are also using ads to pressure lawmakers and solicit support from the public.

Cuomo, speaking to reporters in Rochester, says he campaigned against new taxes and will stick to that pledge.

“I’m going to do exactly what I said I was going to do,” Cuomo said.

The Citizens Budget Commission is a non –partisan watchdog group set up during Great Depression and not allied to any group in the current fight. The Commission’s Betsy Lynam says if you look at the larger picture, in the years since the recession began in 2008, New York has raised numerous sources of revenue, for a total of $11.7 billion new dollars for the state’s coffers every year. In addition to the temporary tax the rich surcharge, there are still over $5 billion dollars in permanent new taxes, including ones on public transit, extra levies on hospitals and other health care providers, as well as increases in so- called sin taxes, including cigarettes and alcohol.

At the same time, Lynam says, previous governors and the legislature have not really cut spending in any significant amount. She says maybe it is appropriate to focus on spending cuts right now.

“Clearly, more work needs to be done on the spending side of the budget,” Lynam said.

Nevertheless, advocates for continuing to tax the rich have public opinion on their side. Polls consistently show New Yorkers would prefer higher taxes on the wealthy than cuts to schools.

Before the budget deadline is reached, a compromise may be proposed.

There’s been talk at the Capitol in recent days of perhaps raising the threshold on the tax surcharge, to those earning over $5000,000 or perhaps one million dollars a year, to make it closer an actual millionaire’s tax.

Assembly Democrats have signaled that they are open to that, and at least one State Senator, Senator John Bonacic, a maverick Republican, says he could support it, too.

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