Spitzer administration presents new challenges

NewsAnalysis

New York’s new Democratic governor Eliot Spitzer has pledged to reform state government, and that’s widely welcomed. There are lots of reasons why people support cleaning up politics, the biggest one being that too few regular folks represent the rest of us, and a vast amount of corporate money is behind those who run the state.

But Spitzer has already shown himself to be a very mixed bag — no surprise, given his background and his relationships with some Democratic Party centrists and in the corporate world. Still, he’s an improvement over Pataki and can be pushed to take pro-people positions. He has put forth positive proposals, the brightest spot so far being on education. His budget begins to settle the school funding lawsuit that the Pataki administration fought for more than 10 years, and will include more than $3 billion for New York City’s schools, to which the city is supposed to add another $2 billion. These desperately needed — and court ordered — funds will make a huge difference for millions of kids, not just in New York City, since other school districts will benefit from the changes in the funding formula.

But that same budget contains big cuts in health care, which, when added to those called for by President Bush’s latest “guns over butter” budget, will be a disaster. Several million New Yorkers have no health insurance, asthma and diabetes are reaching epidemic levels and people in rural areas are already underserved. Why should reform start with cutting services, and not with cutting the profits of insurance companies? Why not look for ways to cut drug costs, as other states have, such as buying them from Canada? And why accept the federal government’s current level of Medicare reimbursement — there’s a new Congress and the electorate placed health care high on its priorities. Why not put the power of the state government behind a call for a national solution to the health care crisis?

The fundamental problem is how to pay for the state’s obligations to its residents. Spitzer has promised to lower property taxes, as well he should — such relief for working families is long overdue. But this should not be confused with the issue of what to do about taxes on big business and the wealthy.

Over the Pataki years there was a sharp shift away from such taxes, and as a result, a decline in revenue. The web site “New York Loves Business” cheers that in the last five years, “the cost of doing business in New York dropped by 33 percent ... workers’ compensation costs [are] down more than one-third … New York has eliminated or streamlined 1,300 regulations.”

Although Spitzer had pledged absolutely no tax increases, he seems to have moderated that stance, and is considering closing some tax loopholes. But it will take a struggle to move his administration to undo the damage done by Pataki’s version of Bush’s tax breaks for the “haves and have mores.”

The question of good government boils down to this: Who will the changes and reforms benefit? Will they benefit the majority, the working people, the children, the poor, the racially and nationally oppressed, and immigrants? Will they benefit the many communities that have the economic wolf at the door, from rural areas and small towns to bigger cities, in every part of the state?

New York’s Democratic state government should add its collective voice to the growing call for a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The $2 billion a week that is being spent there on death and destruction would make so many things possible in terms of state programs that benefit working people.

The November elections produced a more favorable balance of power in New York state, creating the possibility of winning some victories on basic issues like affordable housing and health care, reform of the Taylor law, women’s reproductive rights, repealing the Rockefeller drug laws, and immigrant rights, among others. But it will require new and higher levels of unity of the labor and people’s movements, a broader view of what is in working people’s interests, and energetic mobilization of the people — the majority — who voted for a change in our country’s direction.

Elena Mora (emora @ cpusa.org) is chair of the New York State Communist Party.