Albany squeezes us again

HEY, BUDDY, CAN YOU spare 10 bucks? It’ll help out a neighbor who’s deep in debt and can’t find a way out. You already know some members of the family involved. It’s not too much to ask for a good cause, is it?

It depends. Even in this economy, what’s $10 if it can help lighten a neighbor’s load? But what if the neighbors in question are the 19 million people who live in the State of New York, and the folks with their hands in your pocket whispering that this little bitty extra contribution won’t hurt at all are the leaders of state government? And what if that $10 won’t make a significant dent in the multi-billion-dollar budget hole the state faces. In other words, it’s quite likely the state will be back for more. Much more.

 

Tens of thousands of people statewide have signed petitions either in person or online protesting the latest revenue scheme hatched in Albany to close the budget gap, now estimated at $5 billion over the next two years. They have drawn the line at the new fees that went into effect this week for motor vehicle registrations, driver’s licenses and, starting next spring, the requirement that everyone get new license plates whether you need them or not. The new plates will cost $25, which is $10 more than the plates you have now cost, though most drivers’ plates are still perfectly good.

At the local level, County Clerk Holly Tanner said in a press release this week from her and state Senator Steve Saland (R-41st), that she has already collected 1,200 signatures on petitions opposing the new license plate fees. Mr. Saland and Assemblymen Marc Molinaro (R-103rd) and Pete Lopez (R-127th) have all condemned the charges and vowed to oppose them in the state legislature.

Part of the outrage over the new fees stems not only from the weariness of New Yorkers, who shoulder the highest tax burden in the nation by most estimates, but also from the inherently unequal impact of the new license fees. People in upstate New York, particularly those who do not live in the handful of metropolitan areas north of Westchester County, have almost no choice other than using private vehicles to get where they need to go. Public mass transportation doesn’t exist here, and now we pay an extra price.

The rejoinder from Governor Paterson’s office to the license plate outcry is that the measure is expected to raise almost $130 million, and those who oppose it should suggest other ways for the state to collect that much money. It’s a fair challenge, except for the part that’s missing.

The money the state hopes to collect from higher fees for licenses, license plates and registrations amounts to about 2 ½% of the overall budget shortfall. In other words, it’s a drop in the bucket. But it has spawned a tidal wave of protest because the state has, as yet, no agreed-upon plan for coming up with the rest of the money.

The inability of the governor to forge a workable agreement with the two houses of the legislature (both controlled by fellow Democrats) to reduce the state budget and impose an inevitable increase in taxes and fees feeds the frustration and anxiety of taxpayers around the state. Perhaps if the public could see how the burden is being shared equitably, we could at least put the news fees in a larger perspective.

But that’s not the Paterson style. Just as with the mishandled pronouncement by the governor that all healthcare workers must get flu shots–a threat he later had to rescind–this new fee arrives with no sense that anyone in power in Albany gave a moment’s thought to how the public might react.

Once or twice, these types of political missteps might be understandable as part of the learning curve of an accidental governor who had no chance to prepare for the job as head of this complex state. But at this point, they look a lot more like a pattern of incompetence.

There’s not much Mr. Paterson can do to repair the damage he’s done to public confidence in his ability to govern. But he could do the right thing and suspend the new fees until he and the legislature work out the painful package of service cuts and taxes required to keep the state running until the next crisis.

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