Groups push for a wealth tax as budget deadline draws near

Legislative Gazette file photo

The New York state budget is due Tuesday, March 31, but as COVID-19 continues to alter the lives of New Yorkers, activist groups call on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to increase spending for health care, housing and education through an increased tax rate on the wealthiest. 

With less than a week away until legislators are to pass the 2021 budget, New York holds a $6 billion deficit, showing a challenge for new programs and policies to find a spot on the spending line.

As of the morning of March 25, Cuomo reported 30,811 positive COVID-19 cases in the state. 

With the number of cases rising everyday and the state on “pause,” New Yorkers’ lives are altered as businesses close, people lose their jobs, schools are shut down and grocery stores grow barren. 

Groups representing social service forces across the state joined for a virtual press conference on March 25, to call on Cuomo to make tax increases for the upper class to help with coronavirus spending and to provide funds for investment for services already struggling before the virus. 

Charles Khan, the organizing director at the Strong Economy For All Coalition, believes that Cuomo’s strong efforts to combat COVID-19 in New York should also be applied to changing the budget.

“New York has more billionaires than anywhere else on the planet, there’s 112,” Khan said. “If we don’t ask them to pay, we cut schools and health care instead.”

Included in Cuomo’s executive budget is a $2.5 billion cut to Medicaid spending with a proposal to reform the system with a Medicaid Redesign Team. 

Cuts to Medicaid funding have already impacted health professionals prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Sarah Buckley, a nurse from Buffalo, says that previous Medicaid cuts left her hospital understaffed and without funds for equipment such as oxygen monitors and safety masks. 

At a press conference on Wednesday morning Cuomo announced an increased distribution of masks, gloves, gowns and faceshields to New York hospitals, but there is still a need for 30,000 additional ventilators across the state. 

“Even if we get those beds and ventilators, we won’t have a staff to work with them,” said Buckley. “Our hospitals and staff are going into this crisis knowing we didn’t have what we needed before and we certainly don’t have it now.”

In addition to individuals urging Governor Cuomo to rethink the health care budget, people are also urging him to think about New York’s homelessness problem. With more than  90,000 homeless people in New York state, precautions to stay at home and maintain a six-foot buffer from others is not easy for every community. 

Clayton Carr, a member of social service group VOCAL-NY, is currently living in a homeless-shelter. He reports that the virus has caused soup kitchens and food pantries to close and tensions in shelters to rise as food supplies run scarce.

“How are we supposed to be safe if social distancing or hand washing, or access to hand sanitizers are not an option for us,” said Carr. “Why is Governor Cuomo protecting [wealthy New Yorkers], before he protects my life and the life of other homeless New Yorkers?” 

As public school buildings close indefinitely and switch to online learning, low-income students face new challenges without lunch program meals, school medical care, technology access and increasing unemployment for their parents. 

Bills S.7378 and S.1659/A07454 are two examples of the type of legislation these groups say could help close the huge budget gap facing lawmakers this year. 

Director of The New York Working Families Party, Sochie Nnaemeka, believes that the issues that were clear before COVID-19 now especially cannot be ignored by legislators. 

“For too long the state has balanced their budget on the backs of black, brown, poor, working class communities and our children, instead of raising revenue from the wealthiest New Yorkers,” Nnaemeka said