Paterson Creates a Budget Fight for Everyone

ALBANY—Oh, now he’s done it.

This was supposed to be a budget battle, over technical minutiae on Medicaid reimbursement streams and Wick’s Law, to make all but the biggest government geek’s eyes glaze over.

But there they were, right on pages 125 through 136 of a budget briefing binder: new taxes and fees on cable TV, sugary drinks, beer, wine, malt liquors and downloaded music.

Now, David Paterson has given us a battle that offers something for everyone.

“Nothing gets the couch potatoes off the couch like taxing their TV,” said E.J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy. “The thing about those tax increases is, the irony of nuisance tax stuff that, is that economically they’re utterly insignificant. Politically, obviously there’s nothing worse. There are people who wouldn’t blink at a massive confiscatory tax on business, but eighteen cents on a bottle of soda and they go nuts.”

McMahon has been ripping the governor’s proposal on his blog for not reducing spending by a great enough amount. Interest groups representing everything from hospitals to janitors blasted the budget for containing draconian cuts – which we’ve all known were coming, and we’ve all known would be blasted for quite some time.

But the dynamic Paterson must now navigate will be different than one based on cuts with the cover of fiscal crisis.

The Daily News found regular New Yorkers to blast the soda tax, which first began to fizzle out Sunday. Mike Long, the chairman of the Conservative Party said, “I’ll support him on any of the cuts he wants to do,” and last month told me he would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the governor as he sang a tune of cutting. He said this Tuesday about the proposed taxes and fees – particularly the soda tax – is “the wrong message for New York and the wrong formula for New York.”

“You’ll send people across the bridges to Jersey,” Long said. “And while they’re there, they can buy their soda over there that doesn’t have the obese tax on it. And they can buy possibly their spirits and their wine and liquor in other places. Certainly while they’re there, they can gas up.”

Dan Cantor, who as the executive director of the Working Families Party occupies the opposite ideological niche as Long, said the fees are “not shared sacrifice.”

“The Governor proposes to balance the budget in an imbalanced way: by raising taxes on the middle class while simultaneously reducing the services we all rely on,” he said. “In this budget there’s a tax on almost everything. Drinking, smoking, driving, food, health care, going to the movies, downloading music, clothes and haircuts. In total, it’s billions in regressive taxes – “nuisance taxes” – that don’t add up to a sensible approach.”

Cantor and the WFP, as well as other left-leaning advocacy groups, are pushing for a tax on upper-income earners. Sheldon Silver seems amenable to it. As did Paterson, when asked Monday.

But if you’re going to eventually cave in, why bluff with a card that helps the other guy make a flush? Senate Republicans seemed to be licking their chops as they spoke against the fee increases, and rapidly provided a cost breakdown to reporters of just how much Paterson proposed.

Come January, if the conference is in the minority, it is looking forward to shouting every talking point it can get. And fighting against a taxes on soda and iTunes songs are just that.

Errol Cockfield, a spokesman for Paterson, said that the fee increases were determined based on the cost of providing services, which fees had not been raised for many years, what allowed for equitable sharing of pain and what would provide revenue quickly.

“The Governor feels these fees are fair, reasonable and necessary to balance this budget,” Cockfield said.

Paterson Creates a Budget Fight for Everyone