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In New York, Calls to Tax the Superrich Are Gaining Ground

The richest 5 percent have gotten unfathomably richer this year. With post–COVID-19 austerity on the horizon, a campaign to tax the rich in New York State is gaining momentum.

Protesters with New York Communities for Change demand that Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature make billionaires pay. (Make the Road New York / Twitter)

On November 22, two days before Thanksgiving, a throng of immigrant workers and supporters packed the sidewalk outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan office to demand that he support a bill to raise state taxes on billionaires to provide economic relief for essential workers excluded from federal aid programs.

“This week, billionaires will feast like kings, while our people have to survive by food lines. Is this fair?” chanted Julissa Bisono, associate director of organizing for Make the Road New York, the immigrant and workers’ rights advocacy organization that organized the rally. The crowd waved signs inscribed with slogans like “Tax the Billionaires, Fund the Workers” and “Stephen Schwarzman Got $2.4 Billion Richer During the Pandemic,” on placards graced with images of Cuomo and the Blackstone billionaire’s faces.

“We know that our governor loves to cook for his family and offers the same to millionaires in the Hamptons, but what about us?” Bisono said, pointing to a mock breadline with essential workers standing behind a table with no bread while next to them sat billionaires feasting.

That same day, the stock market soared, with the Dow Jones average reaching a record level of thirty thousand. Since March, during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the combined wealth of the United States’ 650 billionaires has increased by one-third, close to $4 trillion, reports the New York Times.

The demonstration drew dozens of people from a diverse mix of advocacy groups, including Adhikaar, a Nepali workers’ center, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the Laundry Workers Center, New York Communities for Change, the American Indian Community House, and the Street Vendor Project.

The “billionaires’ tax” bill they support (S.8277 / A.01041) would tax the unrealized capital gains of New York State’s 119 billionaires, whose net worth grew from $521.5 billion to $600.7 billion during the period from March to June, according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, their tax obligations are 79 percent less than they were in 1980, according to a report from the Institute for Policy Studies. The bill has eighteen cosponsors in the Senate and ten in the Assembly.

Governor Cuomo has opposed raising taxes on billionaires, saying that it would make them flee the state. “You have 100 billionaires, you need $50 billion,” he said last summer, when the COVID-19 lockdown had created a massive revenue shortfall — now $14.5 billion — for the state. “You would have to tax every billionaire half a billion dollars more to make it up, right? You know what that means? That would mean you would have no billionaires.”

With progressive Democrats attaining a two-thirds majority in the State Senate, Assembly member Carmen De La Rosa (D-Manhattan), one of the bill’s sponsors, is optimistic that her colleagues will support economic relief for excluded workers, noting their presence at demonstrations and as cosponsors of the bill. “Many of them already publicly acknowledged that this is an issue that they will be supporting,” she said.

In August, Cuomo and New York labor leaders wrote to Congress that the state needed $59 billion to cover expenses for the current fiscal year and to tide it over into the next. De La Rosa welcomes a better relationship with the incoming Biden administration and the prospect of federal aid. But she says it is important for the state to take the lead.

“We are going to need the partnership of the federal government, obviously. We are not letting them off the hook. We are going to hold everybody accountable. But the state legislature has the ability and the authority to also make sure we are taking care of our communities,” she said. “If we do a billionaire’s tax, we will be able then to continue the revitalization of our communities to make sure that people you’ve heard here today who have gone almost a full year without any income are able to put their lives back together.”

Luis Gil, a Make the Road member, is one of those excluded workers. He has lived in Queens — the epicenter of the pandemic in the city at its deadly peak in April — for fifteen years, and worked as a handyman and building superintendent before losing his job.

“Due to that crisis, I lost my job, spent my savings in order to survive. It’s been more than seven months since I’ve received any kind of income to pay rent, food, or other basic services. I feel desperate. My family depends on my earnings. And what worries me most is the possibility of being thrown into the streets with them,” Gil said to the dense throng in Spanish.

Noting the taxes he has paid over the years, he said: “I’m here demanding support for hundreds of thousands of workers like me excluded in New York who wait hours in lines for a loaf of bread or a can of beans to be able to eat. The workers who are excluded are the same workers who sustain the economy and deserve relief.”

He paused, and the crowd burst into chants:

¡Luchando, creando, poder popular!
(“Fighting, creating, popular power!”)