How Cuomo's "Tax-Free New York" Will Hurt New York Taxpayers

Ordinary New York taxpayers, watch out.


The chief executives of GE, Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan Chase are lining up behind a plan by the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, for what the governor calls "Tax-Free New York."

Ordinary New York taxpayers, watch out.

The whole episode is newsworthy for at least two reasons. First, there's the attempt by Cuomo, a possible Democratic presidential contender, to portray himself as a tax-cutter when he isn't one. Second, there's the way that business leaders go along with it. 

If Cuomo were actually proposing a broad-based tax cut in the face of what the governor himself, in justifying the bill, calls "the perception and reality of New York as a high-tax state," plenty of New Yorkers would be cheering for him.

Alas, the governor, having already hit New Yorkers who earn more than $2 million annually with an estimated $1.9 billion-a-year tax increase, is not proposing to actually make New York "tax free" or even to cut taxes for all taxpayers. Instead the proposal that has the CEOs cheering would offer tax breaks to businesses that locate on or adjacent to a State University of New York campus. The employees of those businesses would have their wages be exempt from state income taxes for five years, and the businesses themselves would not have to pay sales tax or property tax for ten years.

 The catch is that, to qualify for the tax benefits, not only does the business have to be where the governor wants it, it has to be in a sector that the governor approves. "Certain types of businesses are prohibited from participating in this program, including retail, real estate, and professional services type businesses," the governor's memo in support of the bill says.

Plenty of people are willing to call this what it is. A Republican state assemblyman from Staten Island, Joe Borelli, called Cuomo's plan "one of the most disingenuous I have ever heard." According to the Staten Island Advance, Borelli said, "It acknowledges that New York's tax structure is crippling business and then does nothing to address it. The fundamental flaw with this proposal is that it allows Cuomo and [Assembly Speaker Sheldon] Silver appointees to pick and choose which businesses get sweetheart deals, as every other existing business in this state suffers." The New York Post, whose conservative editorial page usually likes tax cuts, editorialized against the governor's "Tax-Free New York" plan.

Yet the big business leaders are lining up to support it. "Tax-Free NY is the type of visionary thinking we need from our leaders," said the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, in a quote distributed by the governor's office. "I applaud Governor Cuomo for taking this initiative to help spur the state's economy," said the CEO of GE, Jeffrey Immelt. The CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, tweeted that it is a "thoughtful, smart plan to help drive private sector investment in NY, deserves support."

GE, Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan Chase have the size, influence, and lobbying juice to get special deals from the state when they need or want them. They do plenty of municipal bond business with the state. Maybe the governor asked for their support, and maybe they figured any move toward tax relief, even on a small scale, can't hurt. And maybe ten years from now SUNY campuses will be surrounded with new high-tech firms like the ones that border MIT and Stanford rather than by rural voters annoyed at Governor Cuomo for his support of gun control.

Perhaps. But in researching Governor Andrew Cuomo's "Tax-Free New York" plan I came across a 1994 New York Times article headlined "21 Enterprise Zones Created, Including 4 in New York City." It reported that "Under the state program, which was first established in 1986, businesses that locate in designated areas of high unemployment and poverty are eligible for a mix of tax credits, low-interest loans, reduced property taxes and discount utility bills." Among the new zones were those in Buffalo and the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York, which haven't exactly been beacons of prosperity since Andrew Cuomo's father, Governor Mario Cuomo, designated them nearly 20 years ago. In fairness, plenty of more conservative New York politicians supported enterprise zones, too — they were a favorite of Republican congressman Jack Kemp, who, like Andrew Cuomo, served in the federal department of Housing and Urban Development.

Some businessmen with the patience and capital to navigate the complexity of the state's political process and regulations may find the tax-free New York plan a good deal for them. But others may conclude that by moving either out of state or offshore, they can find a low-tax environment that doesn't expire in five or ten years and that doesn't require jumping through a lot of special hoops set up by the governor.