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New York Is Finally Taxing the Rich

After a serious extra-parliamentary campaign in which DSA and newly elected socialist legislators figured prominently, the New York State legislature just passed the most progressive budget in years.

The "March on Billionaires" on July 17, 2020, in New York City, called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to pass a tax on billionaires and to fund workers excluded from unemployment and federal aid programs. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In the annual wrangling over the New York State budget, socialists and other left forces just won far more than anyone expected. The state legislature agreed to temporarily raise taxes on New Yorkers earning more than $1.1 million, with a tax rate of 10.9 percent on incomes over $25 million. This is happening even though Democratic scion Andrew Cuomo is still the governor. After years of Cuomo’s elevation of coddling the rich into a matter of liberal principle, in New York, as at the federal level, decades of austerity are grinding to a halt.

In 2018, education activist and actress Cynthia Nixon ran for governor on a progressive platform in a bid that seemed like a long shot, not only to most of the political class but even most progressives. Nixon ran on a 10 percent increase in taxes on incomes over a million, and a 40 percent increase for incomes over $10 million. Josh Mason of the Roosevelt Institute, who helped Nixon develop her economic plan, pointed out on Facebook last week “how close this is to what the legislature just approved.” (As an aside, it is worth noting that Nixon also campaigned on legal marijuana, another bright spot of this legislative season.)

Some of the highlights of the budget include a $2.1 billion excluded workers fund (relief for undocumented New Yorkers left out of the federal COVID-19 stimulus package) and $2.4 billion in rent relief. Probably the most significant progressive victory is the $1.4 billion foundation aid to public schools, which education advocates — groups like Alliance for Quality Education — and public school parents have been demanding for years. Unlike many other provisions in the budget, the legislature committed to fully funding schools in the future, not just during this crisis, so this win, even more than the others, feels like an acknowledgement of the failure of austerity and a dramatic milestone marking its obsolescence.

Since the 1970s, the weakness of the Left — meaning the labor movement, protest movements, and all shades of socialism — allowed austerity to flourish as the dominant mentality in politics, one in which the government owes little to the people and the wealthy owe even less to any imagined “public.” Now, although the shortcomings of the budget New York just approved are numerous, it’s clear that way of thinking is over. That’s because in the New York State Capitol, the Left is on the march and building power.

Some of the budget’s specific victories — most notably the funding for public education — represent years of organizing and lobbying by advocates. But the cluster of victories in the recent budget happened because over the last three years, New Yorkers have organized to defeat the forces of capital.

Many left-of-center New Yorkers mobilized to defeat the Independent Democratic Caucus, a group of state legislators who consistently voted with Republicans. Many more organized to elect progressive legislators, including at least six socialists. They also organized to defeat Republicans, and Democrats now hold a supermajority in the legislature.

As well, the New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) and many other groups also organized in communities across the state — door-hanging, canvassing, making phone calls, protesting — to pressure legislators to “Tax the Rich.”  (Full disclosure: I’m an NYC-DSA member and volunteered on the electoral campaigns as well as the Tax the Rich campaign.) Tax the Rich was a real test of DSA’s “inside-outside strategy” — electing socialists on the inside, then organize the community to pressure their colleagues on the organization’s top priorities — and the socialists surpassed expectations. The elected officials not only organized their colleagues on Tax the Rich — they collaborated extensively with NYC-DSA on the legislation and strategy. They joined the protests: most notably, Brooklyn socialist assemblywoman Marcela Mitaynes (interviewed by Jacobin when she took office) joined a hunger strike to demand help for the undocumented workers left out of the federal stimulus.

The Left learned that it had power — and that our power still has serious limitations. The budget includes only a tenth of the new revenues that the Tax the Rich campaign demanded. Particularly painful losses include vouchers for the homeless and huge remaining holes in CUNY’s budget. The excluded workers fund is smaller and more difficult to access than activists demanded, leaving many still excluded. In general, though, the biggest sticking point was mainstream Democratic lawmakers’ instance that while they were willing to save the existing government from crumbling, they were “not going to build anything new,” as Fainan Lakha told Tax the Rich volunteers on a debriefing call last week. That is something that will have to change if we are to make serious progress in New York State, especially on climate change and health care.

The socialist legislators have been frank about their disappointment with this budget. Those in the assembly initially resisted even voting for it. Zohran Mamdani of Queens, Brooklyn’s Phara Souffrant Forrest, and Marcela Mitaynes had planned to vote no, but changed course when they were told by advocates and fellow legislators that doing so would jeopardize the gains they’d won — especially, it would have emboldened some conservative and moderate Democrats to reject aid to the undocumented. Mamdani (who Jacobin interviewed during his primary campaign) announced reluctantly on the floor of the assembly that the three would be voting yes, and rightly reminded his colleagues of one of NYC-DSA’s more powerful weapons: the primary challenge. “We will continue to fight for a government that does not force us to take back too little to our constituents,” he said. “If that change requires us to change the composition of this body, then so be it. Because it is our job here, based upon what we were elected on, to turn the principled into the possible, and not acclaim the possible as the principled.”

Although the socialists are not trumpeting this budget as a victory, it’s impressive to see how far the horizon of the immediately possible has shifted in a short time, more quickly than anyone anticipated.  No one wants to overhype the achievement. But as Tascha Van Auken, chief of staff to socialist state assemblywoman Phara Souffrant Forrest, said on the debriefing call last week, “We’ve actually accomplished a ton in a really short time.” Or as Forrest herself put it: “The socialists are kicking ass!”