It’s a long way to Albany

JOEL TYNER CAN WALK AND TALK at the same time. It’s a useful skill for a politician. Think of all the people who end up with their feet in their mouths instead of on the ground.

Mr. Tyner’s timing is not so good. He picked the hottest week in decades to walk from Manhattan to Albany. But the trip has given him plenty of time to talk on his cell phone about the slow motion disaster called a New York state budget and his plan to challenge Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination for governor.

He called me, one of many calls he’s making to the press, as he walked through southern Columbia County Monday morning. He’s persistent, like a telemarketer giving you all his talking points before you can get a word in edgewise. That quality probably made him a good substitute teacher in the Hudson City School District, where he worked during the last school year. It seems unlikely the kids would have flummoxed him in the classroom.

In addition to teaching, he’s a Democrat who represents the Towns of Rhinebeck and Clinton in the Dutchess County Legislature. In the past he’s run unsuccessfully for state office, twice against incumbent Republican Steve Saland in the 41st District, which includes all of Columbia County.

He believes the state doesn’t have much of a choice; we have to tax and spend. And he can’t understand why surveys show public approval for Governor Paterson’s insistence on no new taxes–except the ones the governor wants–plus deep cuts in spending for schools and hospitals and other key government functions. He might have been out in the sun too long, but why not hear what he has to say? (You don’t have much choice once he has your number.)

Mr. Tyner has even less use for Mr. Cuomo, who holds a commanding lead in the polls ahead of the November election for governor. Mr. Cuomo has endorsed Mr. Paterson’s position on no new taxes and big spending cuts. So Mr. Tyner is trying to gather over 15,000 signatures of registered Democrats, which would allow him to challenge Mr. Cuomo in a primary.

What’s Mr. Tyner’s plan? He starts with a state stock transfer tax enacted in 1915 and left to gather dust; this year it should have yielded tax revenues for the state of $16 billion–almost twice what the state needs to close its deficit. But the money is never actually collected; it’s just accounted for and “immediately refunded” by the state. He believes the state should actually collect some of that money from the investors who benefit from Wall Street trading.

He also favors a “millionaires’ tax” that would increase the marginal income tax rate for the very wealthiest New Yorkers back to where it was when that old socialist radical Nelson Rockefeller was governor. The state has notched up the rate in recent years, but opponents fret that higher rates just drive the richest people out of the state. Funny thing, I assume that when income tax rates go up, the wealthiest folks simply pay to have bigger loopholes for themselves built into the law.

Mr. Tyner’s third major point is a question: Who’s going to pay for schools and other essential services if Mr. Cuomo continues to slash state spending the way Governor Paterson has?

Columbia County lost nearly 200 teaching and other education jobs a few weeks ago as the result of state and federal funding cutbacks. Almost 15,000 jobs disappeared statewide by one estimate. Maybe the quality of education won’t suffer significantly because of these cuts, but with neither Congress nor Albany in a mood to help, what happens next year? As one principal told the Ichabod Crane District school board last month, after the current round of lay-offs, there is “nothing left” to cut.

Opponents of Mr. Tyner’s proposals usually call for lowering taxes and further downsizing government, which ideally produces a thriving economy, greater wealth and more tax revenue for essential services. But even the most optimistic free-market advocates offer little reason to believe that this would happen quickly if at all.

It’s tempting to discount Mr. Tyner as a gadfly, a low-budget publicity seeker. But he’s easily as credible as any of the discredited people who currently lead state government. Like a good teacher he wants people to talk about the options and their impact. Whether you like his ideas or hate them, and at least he has a plan to get us through this crisis, one that restarts the conversation about our future.

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