Council Member Jumaane Williams, the author (photo: William Alatriste)
Governor’s budget epitomizes the need to define what "progressive" means
The new state budget, like almost all budgets, has some beneficial things that should be celebrated. However, to call this budget “progressive” clearly means that in this era of Trump, the term is being stretched to the point of possibly having no meaning at all. And frankly, we should also examine what it means to be part of the "resistance."
The main example being touted is “Raise the Age,” which of course we should take time to celebrate and give credit where it’s due. It should also be put in perspective. This state was the second to last state to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 -- meaning 48 other states have been progressive on this years before us. So if this makes New York progressive, what were they? Additionally, what was just passed is a watered down version of what most advocates say would be most helpful.
Let’s also look at tuition-free college. Again, it sounds good when Governor Cuomo talks about it, and it is better than what we had -- but how many people does it impact? If you don’t finish your degree in four years, you’re not eligible, or you have to repay any scholarship money. This is unacceptable. For example, only 10.4 percent of first-time/full-time students from CUNY City College graduate on time.
The Excelsior Scholarship also doesn’t help the poorest students, who need the help the most. As we celebrate this win with pictures of Bernie Sanders, we must ask if this is really what he had in mind when he brought the issue to prominence last year.
Then there is 421-a, which has been euphemistically re-branded as the “Affordable New York” housing program. This is perhaps the single worst item in the state budget. The governor missed the mark completely and aligned himself more with Donald Trump, who helped create 421-a in the first place, than the New Yorkers in need of affordable housing.
First, the new program is completely unlinked with the renewal of rent regulations -- the only real leverage tenants had in extending rent stabilization laws along with the real estate tax break that is 421-a. Next, the revival of the 421-a tax abatement gives away billions to real estate developers without spurring true affordable housing. The new program is worse than the old one, which expired two years ago.
This tax break gives away a lot for very little. In essence, it takes away valuable resources from effective affordable housing strategies to instead line the pockets of wealthy developers, like the current president, who is one of the biggest recipients taking advantage of city taxpayers.
Over 10 years, this tax abatement will cost the city nearly a billion additional dollars in unrealized tax revenue, causing similar pain to the cuts we are facing from the president.
Adding insult to injury, the governor aligned with Senate Republicans and took away the city’s ability to do anything to shape the program -- an ability that existed in the previous version.
What’s worse still is that even after 421-a expired, new construction permits continued without pause, proving this tax abatement is an inexplicable, unnecessary billion-dollar gift to developers.
Let’s be clear, those touting this as a “progressive” state budget had the power to do all of this before the Trump Era, but chose not to. And even these measures are overly compromised, half-loafs of what they could and should be.
On a separate note, it’s unclear what benefit, if any, the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) played through aligning with Senate Republicans. Their existence doesn’t seem to have been necessary in getting a weaker than requested Raise the Age in exchange for a thorough tax giveaway to developers. The Assembly and Senate Democrats could have done that deal on their own.
Credit is deserved to the Senate Democrats and particularly to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie for any progress we do now have. With that said, they also must immediately begin work on strengthening Raise the Age, and go back to the drawing board with the failed new 421-a.
I don’t write any of this to say that there is nothing good in the state budget. But, my constituents and I expect more. New York City and New York State deserve better.
As an experienced community organizer, I am trained to celebrate the small victories along the way to the final goal. And yes, people who are pushed to do things they otherwise wouldn’t should be rewarded as well. That is part of the political game. But, it should be put in context.
We should see and acknowledge the differences between someone who has conviction to fight at all costs for progressive values and someone who wears whatever cloak is politically expedient.
The new state budget includes some good, even some historic things. But to tout it loudly as a “progressive” budget seems more on the expediency side than any true conviction. These false proclamations should make us question what the word “progressive” even means today. Are we allowing mediocrity in the name of the people, more for self-gain than public service?
I remember just a few years ago New York residents were too proud to let Rudy Giuliani get away with using New York to tout a vastly inflated record as a passport to the presidency. At this point, I hope that aligning with “progressive” actually ends up delivering what advocates truly want and residents desperately need. If not, I hope that people of conscience in New York, who kept Rudy in check, will have the same pride in 2020.
Jumaane Williams is a City Council member representing parts of Brooklyn. On Twitter @JumaaneWilliams.