How to Solve the Deficit: A Tourism Tax

New York is facing a financial crisis of near-historic proportions as we stare at a $6 billion budget gap. That’s worse than anything David Dinkins had to confront back in the awful early 1990’s, but the mood around City Hall lacks urgency. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is understandably leery about tax increases, but he cannot close the budget gap with spending cuts alone. So the Mayor must find a way to increase revenues. The best way: ask commuters, tourists and diplomats to share the cost of keeping New York vibrant and financially sound.

Restoring the commuter tax ought to be a given, although the Mayor requires Albany’s approval. Its abolition in 1999 was a prime example of why New York’s State Legislature surely must be the nation’s largest collection of clowns. The commuter tax of 0.45 percent was hardly noticed in the well-off enclaves of Westchester and Nassau counties, but it added up to $400 million a year for the city.

The commuter tax alone won’t solve Mr. Bloomberg’s dilemma. He has to find other sources of revenue. Here’s one: a tourism tax of $150 per visitor. When tourists come to New York, they fall under the protection of our Police and Fire Departments; why shouldn’t they pay a small fee for the privilege of using city services? Thirty-two million tourists flock to New York every year, and the city goes to great expense to make sure they have a safe holiday. Asking them to pay $150 hardly seems unreasonable. And together with the $400 million from a restored commuter tax, this would almost erase the $6 billion budget gap. To make up the rest, the diplomats who enjoy the benefits of the world’s safest big city should also be asked to pay a small fee. And the United Nations should pay more for its prime location. The world comes to New York to cut deals-it’s time the world paid its fair share for the services New York offers.

Critics will say that such taxes will discourage tourism and drive commuters to jobs in the suburbs. That is absurd. New York offers such unparalleled opportunities that people will gladly pay a small amount for the privilege of working and visiting here. If, however, the Mayor chooses to rely only on budget cuts to save $6 billion, the inevitable result-a more dangerous city, a dirtier city, a city of crumbling bridges and sporadic subways-will lead to an exodus from New York.

Raising taxes requires leadership. Mayor Bloomberg, a man from the private sector not wedded to big government, has the credentials to lead the way.

Lincoln Center Snubs Avery Fisher

Back in 1973, as the city began its slow slide toward the edge of bankruptcy, Lincoln Center received an enormous boost when Avery Fisher, a music philanthropist and founder of an electronics company, donated $10.5 million to renovate the music hall which was home to the New York Philharmonic. The conditions of the gift stipulated that the building be named Avery Fisher Hall “in perpetuity,” and the arts complex still has almost $20 million of endowment money from that original gift. But as The New York Times reports, Lincoln Center, as part of its plan to either renovate the building or tear it down and rebuild, is thinking of backing out of its promise to the late Mr. Fisher in order to open up the naming of the new structure to the highest bidder. It is hard to believe that the board members of Lincoln Center are even considering such a crass gesture.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Fisher’s wife, Janet Fisher, and children, Charles Avery Fisher and Nancy Fisher, are outraged that Lincoln Center may break its commitment, but have been unable to get any reassurance from the board or Lincoln Center president Reynold Levy. The Fishers indicate that they will take legal action if necessary.

Why is Lincoln Center’s board so willing to dismiss Avery Fisher’s generosity? Because they’re hoping to attract a big-pocket donor to pay for a new $325 million hall, and they want to dangle the naming opportunity as an enticement. But why would a new donor give anything to Lincoln Center, knowing that previous agreements with philanthropists apparently had an expiration date? It is worth noting that Avery Fisher, who died in 1994, didn’t simply write a check for $10 million. He became deeply involved with Lincoln Center, spending much time there and establishing the Avery Fisher Artist Program, which has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to budding young musicians. In 1992, The Times reports, he donated his 1692 Stradivarius to the Juilliard School.

One cannot overestimate the impact of a $10 million donation in 1973. In the years that immediately followed, the city would come close to financial ruin, yet the city’s premier orchestra would be protected because of Avery Fisher’s altruism. It is outrageous that now, particularly as the city emerges from another dark chapter, Lincoln Center’s board is willing to dishonor the memory of one of New York’s most generous music lovers.

Socially Healthy States

Perhaps it wouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the most miserable Americans voted for George W. Bush, and that happy Americans voted for Al Gore. But new research backs up this intuition with facts. Marc Miringoff, director of the Fordham University Institute for Innovation in Social Policy, has published a report, “The Social Health of the States,” which uses 16 measures of social health-including child poverty, high-school graduation rates, homicide rates, teen suicide and health insurance -to determine a state’s “social health.” He found that 18 of the 20 states with the worst social health were in the South, West and Southwest, and voted for Mr. Bush. Eighteen of the 20 states with the best social health were in the Northeast and Midwest, and voted for Mr. Gore. Which from the point of view of a democracy could indicate that the right man won, if one holds that the country’s most destitute and disempowered should have a say in who sits in the White House.

Aside from its political implications, Mr. Miringoff’s research, reported in The New York Times , attempts to create a way of looking at a state’s health without focusing on its budget. The state that scored highest in social health was Iowa; New Mexico came in last. A new map of America emerges from the study. In Nevada, elderly people are more than three times as likely to commit suicide as in Connecticut or Massachusetts. Montana’s rate of child abuse is more than 10 times higher than that of Pennsylvania. In New Mexico, almost 30 percent of residents have no health insurance; in Rhode Island, just 8 percent are uninsured.

If Mr. Miringoff really wants to capitalize on his methods, we’d suggest he get busy on creating “The Social Health of Colleges.” It would do a great service for parents and students who want to know more about a college than average SAT scores and A.P. credits.