Eliminating taxes in college communities won't improve the economy, but it will undermine our public institutions.
The decade-long conservative campaign for lower taxes and limited government has hit a wall of public outrage over the unfairness of the American tax system. But while lower taxes for the wealthy and corporations may not be popular, there is still huge public skepticism about how tax dollars can be put to work creating jobs or improving people’s daily lives. Fueling that skepticism are campaigns like that being run now by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is aggressively promoting the idea that we can promote prosperity by lowering taxes.
Governor Cuomo has been racing around New York, with six appearances around the state in less than two weeks, to promote a plan he calls “Tax-Free NY.” Just the name alone should be enough to alarm anyone who understands what society, citizenship. and civilization is all about or what is needed to create broadly shared prosperity. One of a governor’s fundamental jobs is to spend tax dollars wisely, to put the public’s resources to work educating our children, protecting the health of our air and water, building the roads and mass transit systems that allow us to get to work, enjoy community life. and get their goods to market. Taxes pay for public safety and courts that safeguard the rule of law. A “tax-free NY” would be a New York of anarchy, dire poverty, and hopelessness.
Of course, the governor is not really proposing to get rid of all taxes in New York. Instead he would eliminate all taxes – property, personal income, sales, and business – in new tax-free zones established in and around public and private colleges and universities in the state. Every one of these institutions of higher education are supported heavily by taxes in a host of ways: for their very existence and operations in the case of public colleges, and through research grants and government-provided or -guaranteed student grants and loans to private colleges.
If there is an idea behind the governor’s program, it is that the researchers and thinkers who work in higher education have long made university communities incubators of new businesses. Creating tax-free zones around New York universities is somehow supposed to make them more attractive to business innovation. But Governor Cuomo has this totally backwards. Universities are business innovators because of the creative people who work there. Eliminating taxes around a community college or university does not make the people who teach and do research more creative or innovative. Businesses don’t start in university communities because of low taxes. Businesses are started in university communities because of the quality of the researchers and intellectual richness of the faculty. Attracting and supporting them takes money – from taxes!
As part of Governor Cuomo’s push, I have received two emails from his campaign touting “Tax-Free NY.” The emails are full of quotes from the super-rich promoting the governor’s proposal, including Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase. My favorite is from Kenneth Langone, one of the billionaires who tried to defeat President Obama last year: “States need to begin helping businesses by lifting the tax burden and also creating an environment in which employees want to raise their families.” The Blankfeins and Dimons and Langones of this world may live in gated communities, use private education, pay for private health care (at the Langone NYU Medical Center), and enjoy lavish retirements without Social Security, but most other New Yorkers rely on taxes and public programs to help them raise their families.
Of course, Langone – who made his fortune from Home Depot – and the rest of Cuomo’s tycoons would never have become rich without all the public structures that support their businesses and employees. In his advocacy for “Tax-Free NY,” the Governor is encouraging people and businesses to shirk their responsibilities and deny their obligations. The businesses and employees who benefit from the richness of a university community, often marked by excellent schools and libraries and good public services, have a basic responsibility to help pay for the benefits that give them that opportunity.
Building an America that works for all us, with broadly based prosperity, will take leaders who can tell a different story about America – the true story about the great American middle class built by decisions the country made, through our government, to invest in public education, a legal system that protects private initiative, labor laws that protect workers from exploitation, and investment in public infrastructure. That, Governor Cuomo, is also what built New York as the Empire State.
Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform