Skip to main content

Tax rich, solve inequality?

By Errol Louis, CNN Commentator
January 24, 2014 -- Updated 1546 GMT (2346 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Errol Louis: NYC Mayor de Blasio, NY Gov. Cuomo tussling over Pre-K funding
  • De Blasio wants to tax rich to pay for it; Cuomo offers to fund statewide, wants to lower taxes
  • Louis: income inequality central to debate, outcome could be harbinger for national politics
  • Louis: Cuomo, with presidential aspirations, may be pressed to lighten up on anti-tax rhetoric

Editor's note: Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.

(CNN) -- Less than a month into his new job, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is on a collision course with Gov. Andrew Cuomo over who will take credit for an ambitious effort to extend full-day pre-kindergarten to every child in the state. What looks at first glance like a local political spat has less to do with education than with a larger, national turn toward addressing simmering issues of income inequality.

On the surface, the conflict brewing between Cuomo and de Blasio seems like a minor bureaucratic dust-up over how to fund a program. De Blasio wants to pay for pre-kindergarten and afterschool programs by imposing a 0.5% income tax increase on New York households that earn $500,000 a year or more.

Errol Louis
Errol Louis

But to levy the tax, de Blasio must get official permission from the state. And Cuomo -- who is running for re-election this year on a platform of refunding taxes, not increasing them -- is refusing that permission, but he is offering to pay for the program out of existing state funding, which at the moment shows a $2 billion surplus.

So we have two men supporting the same idea (one that is popular with voters), and there's enough money to pay for it. No problem, right?

Wrong. De Blasio has rejected Cuomo's offer, insisting that a tax on high-income city dwellers provides a more stable and reliable source of funding. Cuomo has countered by going even further, promising to lavish $1.5 billion on pre-K for the state over the next five years. The polite dispute shows no signs of going away; the New York Daily News headline writers are calling it "the Duel at Pre-K Corral."

Some of the fight is a standard city vs. state money tussle. Every year, New York City, the economic engine of the state, sends billions more in tax money to the state capital than it gets back, creating a permanent source of friction between New York mayors and governors. Adding to the tension is the fact that New York's powerful governors, operating from the upstate capital, often get overshadowed by New York City mayors, who bask in the glow of the world's financial and media capital.

But there's another 800-pound elephant in the room: De Blasio campaigned long and hard on the idea of a tax hike on the wealthy as part of an effort to cure economic inequality in New York -- what he called "a tale of two cities."

The idea resonated deeply with voters, and for good reason: No other American city comes close to New York when it comes to the vast gap between rich and poor. In 2012, in the worst days of the recession, more than 21% of city residents were living in poverty, defined as just over $23,000 a year for a family of four, in a city that also boasts 70 billionaires, and nearly 400,000 people with a net worth north of $1 million.

Cuomo, DeBlasio fight over pre-k funding
Lemon: Can de Blasio be Robin Hood?
Did de Blasio leave wealthy out in cold?

De Blasio's proposed solution -- a tax on the rich to pay for pre-K -- was a winner with voters, helping him garner 73% of the vote in November. It's a mandate he invokes when the tax plan is challenged. The plan is two-edged: De Blasio says early education helps start low-income children on a path to success, which is a long-term step toward closing the income gap. And the tax itself amounts to a government-sponsored transfer of resources from the rich to the rest of us.

Conservative critics say de Blasio's main interest lies in the symbolism of the tax rather than the benefits to children. "He believes in that left-wing populism. He was elected to soak those rich guys," writes columnist John Podhoretz in the New York Post. "It is his moral duty to impose that tax."

Cuomo, by contrast, has a statewide political focus that includes deeply conservative suburban, upstate and rural areas, where voters already feel overtaxed. Cuomo's 2010 victory -- and this year's re-election effort -- include iron-clad promises to lighten the state tax burden, as spelled out in the report of a hand-picked tax-lowering commission.

That arguably puts the governor out of step with unmistakable national political indictors that suggest voters are ready for government action to help poor and working-class Americans. The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 that quickly spread across the country was one sign; so was the re-election of President Obama in 2012 and de Blasio's victory in 2013.

De Blasio explicitly invoked the national mood in a recent speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, calling on his fellow chief executives to battle inequality.

"This town we're in here has been gripped in a frustrating paralysis and so it turns, we turn as a nation, to all of us, to the mayors of this country, to address the root causes of inequality," said de Blasio. That echoes a theme Obama is expected to make a centerpiece of next week's State of the Union address.

If Obama and de Blasio are right, and America is looking for a combination of substantive and symbolic actions to close the income gap, then Cuomo will be under pressure to lighten up on his anti-tax rhetoric and continue championing efforts like universal pre-K, in order to appeal to New York voters and set the stage for a future presidential run.

The actions of Cuomo, a shrewd lifelong political operator with a gift for sniffing out and riding political trends, might be the most potent indicator yet of whether or not America is about to turn a corner when it comes to making sure society's poor don't fall further behind.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Errol Louis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT