NY Gov Candidates Tackle Taxes, Spending -- Sort of

Thursday, Oct 21, 2010  |  Updated 3:55 PM EDT
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NY Gov Candidates Tackle Taxes, Spending -- Sort of

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Polls, news commentators and chatter at the local diner will tell you taxes and overspending have for years been New York's biggest problem and will be on the minds of voters choosing a governor Nov. 2.

But what Democratic candidate Andrew Cuomo and tea party Republican Carl Paladino say are their bold plans to fix the economy aren't bold at all, according to fiscal analysts.

Even calling them plans is a bit of stretch because of a lack of specifics. And much of what they propose is driven less by creativity than by necessity.

"So far, (Cuomo) is vague on all that," said E.J. McMahon, director of the fiscally conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy. He notes Cuomo's approach to curbing Albany's high spending is to freeze salaries, a measure that's already in the state's fiscal plan.

"Bascially, he says he's going to hold the line on spending and taxes. Well, that's a pretty stiff challenge," McMahon said. "You're going to have to do more than freeze their pay to do that."

"Now Paladino, his specifics seem to shift a lot and some of them strain plausibility," McMahon said. "Generally, his thing is, 'I'll do what needs doing,' but we don't really know."

Cuomo's plan is at least on paper, compiled in policy books that haven't likely been seen by many voters, said Robert B. Ward, deputy director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.

"Mr. Cuomo has put out a lot more specifics than Mr. Paladino," Ward said. "It's fair to say neither candidate has fully detailed how they are going to control spending enough to balance the proposals they've made on the tax side."

For example, Cuomo doesn't give specific targets for tax and spending cuts. Paladino does, but without saying how he'd achieve them.

And Paladino's eye-popping promise to cut taxes by 10 percent and cut spending by 20 percent, a vow that helped him win the Republican primary, is really just a given, McMahon said.

That's because the state's fiscal plan already projects deficits from the current budget, requiring deep cuts just to stay balanced. And taxes are already expected to fall with the expiration of some of the biggest tax increases in history, approved over the past few years by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

But that still leaves New York with billions of dollars in projected deficits and some of the highest property taxes in the nation.

"One of the most oppressive taxes in the state is the local property tax," Cuomo said last week at a brief campaign stop on Long Island to rail against taxes.

He then rattled off what he calls the culprits: "Over 10,000 local governments across the state, county, town, village, lighting district, water district, all these years we created all these governments."

Notably absent was a mention of school taxes, which account for more than 60 percent of most tax bills and that Cuomo's own policy book states are rising at 7.5 percent, more than double inflation.

More than 70 percent of school spending goes to salaries and benefits, fiercely protected by the state's powerful teachers unions that have long been Cuomo's supporters, along with other public worker unions and their allied Working Families Party.

Paladino's charge against Cuomo is that a zebra doesn't change his stripes.

"Right now, Cuomo keeps company with a lot of people whose stripes are stuck in concrete," McMahon said. "But there's a political theory, that a liberal Democrat could be the best change agent — and maybe the only one — given the political complexion of the state."

While Cuomo's plan may require a bit of faith in his diplomatic skills, Paladino's relies on a willingness to knock some Albany heads together.

"The highest taxes in America? Why?" Paladino said. "Why scare so many jobs away so carelessly and recklessly?"

"We're going to cut taxes every year during my administration," he told CNBC TV last week. "We're going to cut spending every year during my administration."

Cuomo's counter is a cap on the growth of local property taxes, to 2 percent a year or inflation, whichever is lower.

There's no telling how Paladino, who isn't invited to campaign with other Republicans, will get the Democrat-controlled Legislature he's insulted for months to go along with his plans.

"I think there will be some who would simply not want to deal with him," Ward said. "But the governor is the governor and he to be dealt with."

It worked for an upstart Gov. George Pataki who cut taxes and spending early in his tenure. The flamethrower approach didn't work for Eliot Spitzer.

"Neither one of the candidates has said anything that necessarily really builds up your confidence," McMahon said. "It's a leap of faith. You have to fill in the blanks in your mind, to say, 'I think this guy's approach works.'"

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