The problems with bumper-sticker governance


Bumper-sticker slogans and politics have always been inseparable, like peanut butter and jelly. Throughout the history of campaigning, politicians have employed succinct, often widely known but ambiguous sayings to seek the approval of prospective voters. But these slogans’ recent transition from catchy phrases to foundational theories of governmental policy has had negative consequences, particularly in New York.

Take, for instance, “Tax the Rich — Pay Your Fair Share.” As the son of a bus driver and a bank teller, I have never been, and likely will never be, a member of the “rich” club. The notion of millionaires and billionaires paying more taxes has an inherent appeal. In a progressive tax system, like New York’s, those with larger incomes pay a larger share of taxes. But the challenge lies in the undefined concept of one’s “fair share.” It’s effective as a bumper-sticker slogan, but it lacks the precision needed for sound governmental policy.

Politicians, driven by an insatiable desire to appease their constituents, inevitably expand municipal budgets — which necessitates additional taxes. On the surface, what solution could be more universally acceptable than increasing taxes on the rich to fill budget gaps? The problem arises when the gap remains unfilled, and the “rich” begin contemplating leaving New York. The exodus of a relatively few wealthy residents can create a massive budget hole.

New York, one of the highest taxed states, has witnessed a historic outward migration over the past two decades. In 2023 alone, the state lost over 100,000 residents, the most in the country. Since 2020, New York has bid farewell to 10 billionaires. Currently, the top 1 percent of taxpayers in the state contribute 42 percent of its tax receipts, with billionaires facing the highest income tax rate of 14.8 percent.

Given Albany’s reluctance to seriously consider cutting spending, politicians are left with a delicate task: increasing taxes on the remaining wealthy without prompting further departures. So they may raise their taxes slightly while devising alternative means to generate revenue from the “little guy” — the euphemistically described “middle class.”

Examples of these alternative revenue sources include congestion pricing, commuter taxes, the home heating tax, and increased fares for mass transit. The strategy attempts to make middle-class earners believe in the tax-the-rich slogan while in fact increasing their taxes and cost of living.

Another problematic slogan is “New York is a sanctuary for all immigrants.” Along with several other blue states, New York declared itself a sanctuary state, directly conflicting with federal law. Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo embraced this idea, branding Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents “a bunch of thugs” and refusing to cooperate with the agency.

While the policy was initially seen as “virtue signaling” by Democratic politicians, the consequences have been obvious. With a federal open-border policy and the governors of Texas and Florida transporting migrants to sanctuary states, New York now faces an unprecedented migrant crisis. New York City alone has received over 180,000 migrants, and, under a consent decree, is obligated to provide them with shelter and basic needs.

The fiscal implications of the migrant problem are staggering: It is projected to cost the city over $12 billion through 2025. Gov. Kathy Hochul recently proposed $2.3 billion in spending to deal with the crisis, making budget cuts in other areas, such as state aid for public schools. Schools are being repurposed as migrant shelters, and health care funds are being diverted from veterans to migrants. New York City Mayor Eric Adams aptly declared that “the migrant issue will destroy New York City,” but it extends beyond the city, and may jeopardize the state and country.

One more bumper-sticker slogan to consider is “Universal health care is a human right.” It’s a noble sentiment, but the reality is that universal health care is financially unsustainable, and could bankrupt any state attempting to implement it. Even Vermont abandoned its plan for universal health care in 2014, because it would have doubled the state’s budget and necessitated crippling tax increases.

A more pragmatic approach involves lowering health care costs for all by realistically addressing the overall cost of providing health care.

Obviously, slogans can’t serve as the foundation for workable governmental policies. While those like “No taxation without representation” and “One person, one vote” have led to meaningful policies, they’re the exception rather than the rule. Voters must be discerning, and ensure that candidates with bumper-sticker slogans comprehend the issues before they give them their support.

Brian Curran represents the 21st Assembly District.