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Finally, Higher Taxes for the 1% — Is Occupy Behind Governors' Moves to Make the Wealthy Pay Their Share?

Is the narrative around taxes finally shifting? Thanks to heavy public pressure, Governors Cuomo and Brown propose taxing their states' ultrarich.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Sarah Jaffe

 
 
 
 

This week the New York State Senate and Assembly near-unanimously passed a measure that would increase the top tax rate on the state's wealthiest citizens — at Gov. Andrew Cuomo's request.

It was not even two months ago that Cuomo made his infamous statement that his defense of low taxes for the rich was just like the stand his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, took against the death penalty in New York State.

“The point is, we don’t elect — the governor isn’t a big poll-taking machine. And that’s what we do, we take a poll and do whatever the poll says, and you wouldn’t need me … so the fact that everyone wants it, that doesn’t mean all that much. I respect the people — their opinion matters — but I’m not going to go back and forth with the political winds.”

Well, the wind appears to have shifted behind Cuomo — but what changed?

Perhaps the momentum created by the Occupy Wall Street movement helped change Cuomo's mind. He has denied it, but Nelini Stamp, a community organizer with the Working Families Party who's been with Occupy Wall Street since the beginning, notes that Cuomo had essentially "written off" any tax increase on the 1 percent. She tells AlterNet, “What they did in Albany, where they had the sign 'Welcome to Albany, home of Governor 1%,' that had an effect.”

Taxing the rich, it should be noted, has been popular in America for a while, polling consistently at well over majority support. But politicians of both parties are so dependent upon money for campaigns that they've been completely in the pockets of the wealthy for years — and thus any talk about taxing the rich has been written off as “class warfare.”

No more, it seems. It's not just New York that is seeing a move to tax the rich — California's Gov. Jerry Brown also has a proposal that will be a ballot initiative in next election that would raise taxes on his state's 1 percent as well, and progressive groups are pushing him to go even further. “We know that the mood of this country and the mood of this state right now is to tax those who can pay more and who have most benefited from the system,” says Rick Jacobs, founder and chair of the Courage Campaign.

It seems that the shift in the public conversation over Occupy Wall Street is starting to actually change our politics. Since the beginning, OWS and the other Occupy movements have faced complaints that it has no strategy for affecting legislative change. But Stamp notes, “We are transforming the political narrative into small legislative wins — and that doesn't mean that we stop.”

Governor 1% and the Millionaire's Tax

As I reported in October, the massively popular millionaire's tax, a surtax on the very wealthy, was set to expire Dec. 31, resulting in an effective near-$5 billion tax break for the richest. The surcharge, instituted in 2009 after Wall Street's financial crisis, crashed the economy, created two new tax brackets, taxing families with incomes of $300,000 at a rate of 7.85 percent and those over $500,000 at 8.97 percent.

That surcharge is still being allowed to expire, but instead, those making over $1 million (or families making over $2 million) will see their tax rate go up to 8.82 percent on Jan. 1. The State Senate unanimously passed the deal, 55-0, on Wednesday night, and Thursday morning the Assembly voted 130-8 for it. The Associated Press described what else is in the package, which features a tax break for 4.4 million middle-class New Yorkers: