What AOC Means By “Tax The Rich” & Why It Makes People Scared

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

The COVID-19 crisis has created a massive budget shortfall in New York state. But, amid mounting pressure to tax the wealthy in order to offset it, Gov. Andrew Cuomo continues to double down on his refusal to raise taxes for millionaires or billionaires.

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When asked on Monday about the prospect of taxing the state’s more than 100 billionaires, Cuomo cited concerns about so-called “tax flight” — the possibility that higher taxes could spur a mass exodus of New York’s wealthy. 

"I literally talk to people all day long who are in their Hamptons house who also lived [in New York City], or in their Hudson Valley house or in their Connecticut weekend house, and I say, 'You gotta come back, when are you coming back?'" Cuomo said during a press conference on Monday. "They're not coming back right now. And you know what else they're thinking? If I stay there, I pay a lower income tax because they don't pay the New York City surcharge."

Despite Cuomo’s insistence that the rich would flee New York if pressed to pay up, researchers who studied IRS data have found that tax flight is historically negligible in the state.

Cuomo’s comments follow similar disavowals by the governor last Wednesday when, after being pressed for answers about a wealth tax, Cuomo claimed that, "You’d have to tax each of them a half billion dollars, and then you’d have no billionaires left."

New York state’s Democratic legislative leaders have long called on Cuomo to consider siphoning wealth from the state’s billionaires in order to redistribute it to an ailing working class

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“We need to ask Gov. Cuomo to tax the people who are benefiting from this pandemic in order to support the working families who are facing housing insecurity, food insecurity, and more,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in a promotional video released by the progressive advocacy group Make the Road New York last week.

The video also featured Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and State Sen. Jessica Ramos, among a host of other local elected officials.

Ramos is the steward of a bill known as the "Billionaire Mark to Market Tax Act," which calls for the state's 118 billionaires to start paying income tax on their unrealized capital gains, which are currently tax exempt. Ramos’ bill also proposes the establishment of a “worker bailout fund” to be used by those who did not qualify for federal unemployment benefits to withdraw up to $3,300 per month if they have lost their jobs or otherwise suffered financially during the crisis. But Cuomo would ultimately need to sign off on it in order for it to pass into law — and so far, he’s signaled that he’s unwilling to do so.

Although the governor is quick to tout the efficacy of his own response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the viral outbreak has ravaged New York’s economy, with nearly 1.5 million state residents out of work as of June 2020, according to New York State Department of Labor statistics. Regarding the mounting scrutiny over his tax policy, Cuomo recently suggested that lawmakers should be lobbying President Donald Trump and Congress to enact changes at the federal level instead — something that doesn't seem possible while Trump is in the White House.

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“If they want a tax increase, don’t make New York alone do a tax increase and just have the people move to Connecticut,” Cuomo said on a call with reporters Thursday morning. “If you take people who are highly mobile and you tax them, then they’ll just move next door where the tax treatment is simpler. It has to be done on a federal level.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s position is perhaps made clearest by a 2019 tweet that recently reemerged as the debate around taxing the wealthy reaches a fever pitch.

“When we say ‘tax the rich,’ we mean nesting-doll yacht rich. For-profit prison rich. Betsy DeVos, student-loan-shark rich. Trick-the-country-into-war rich. Subsidizing-workforce-[with]-food-stamps rich,” she wrote. “Because THAT kind of rich is simply not good for society, & it’s like 10 people.”

As the pandemic rages on with no sign of abetting any time soon — and as other states continue to move forward with their own plans to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires — Cuomo’s insistence on kowtowing to his monied surrogates speaks volumes. Meanwhile, he chooses symbolic gestures and vanity art projects over helping New York’s working class survive this pandemic with dignity. 

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