A Green State of State Message on MLK Day

by Howie Hawkins

NY-GreenNew York Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address comes as we are celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday.

Unfortunately, half a century after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the dream of equality and prosperity for all remains unrealized.

Income inequality in New York is the highest in the nation, with one-sixth of New Yorkers living below the poverty line. In upstate cities, more than half of all children live in poverty. New York has the most segregated housing and schools in the country, worse than Mississippi or Alabama. More than a million New Yorkers lack access to health care. Shelters and soup kitchens have record lines of people looking for help.

In his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Dr. King reminded us that one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks still lived on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. When asked when those we seek civil rights will be satisfied, Dr. King responded, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

Far too little has changed in the last half century since Dr. King was murdered.

Today many New Yorkers will be marching to call for justice in the name of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and many others who have suffered due to the color of their skins.

Black lives matter.

It is time for our state government to honor King by committing to realize his dreams of justice, particularly the Economic Bill of Rights that he called for in his last campaign, the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968.

It is time for a Green New Deal: An Economic Bill of Rights plus 100% Green Energy.

King’s Economic Bill of Rights included the rights to jobs, living wages, incomes above poverty, affordable housing, health care, and a good education. Today we must add the right to a sustainable environment because climate change looms and threatens the ecological basis of our economy and society, from flooding our coastal cities and towns to jeopardizing our food supplies. The poor, the young and the elderly are already the first victims of climate injustice, with 400,000 a year dying from disease and hunger induced by climate change.

Committing to a 100% green energy by 2030 would address the twin crises of jobs and climate change. Such climate action would secure the right to a job over the next 15 years. The Solutions Project study for New York State projects that 4.5 million jobs would be created building the system out. The jobs crisis is severe in most of New York State. No county in New York state has an unemployment rate lower than before the Great Recession hit in 2008. Every county except Tompkins, Rockland, and those in New York City collectively has fewer jobs than before the Greet Recession hit.

If New York is to convert to green energy, it must stop the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, including gas pipelines, power plants, storage at Seneca Lake, LNG export off Long Island, oil heaters at the Port of Albany, and oil “bomb” trains. Such infrastructure would commit New York to decades more of dependence on fossil fuels and cut off the transition to full green energy.

Governor Cuomo’s trickle-down policy of tax cuts and grants for businesses to promote job creation has not worked to bring jobs to where they are needed. Poverty and inequality are not accidents, they are the results of decades of elected officials working to make the rich richer.

The Independent Democratic Conference’s call for a New Deal for New York that spends $1.5 billion of the one-time bank settlement money for a one-time jobs program falls far short of what New York’s unemployed need and far short of what President Franklin Roosevelt called for in his 1944 State of the Union address to be the culmination of his New Deal – a permanent job guarantee through public jobs for the unemployed. The Greens call for a public jobs program for the unemployed that is funded by recurring revenues. Direct public employment is the way to make sure that jobs, as well as needed infrastructure and services, go to where they are most needed in our long-depressed inner cities and rural upstate regions.

While Governor Cuomo for the first time in his tenure has recently at least put the issues of poverty and income inequality into his speeches, it is not enough. Cuomo’s proposed $10.50 minimum wage (and $11.50 in New York City) is still a poverty wage. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech called for a $2 minimum wage, which is worth $15.50 today. Upstate cities have among the highest poverty rates in the nation, with one-third of families and more than half of the children of Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo living below the poverty line. New York should raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and guarantee a minimum income above poverty through a Basic Income Grant program.

1.8 million New Yorkers do not have health insurance and many of those that do have insurance are underinsured with poor coverage at high cost. The Assembly should pass the New York Health bill this year and push universal single-payer health care high on the New York policy agenda.

One-half of all renters and one-third of all homeowners in New York pay above the affordability level of 30 percent in income. New York has the most segregated housing of any state in the nation. It is time to repeal the Urstadt Law and restore home rule on rent regulations to the municipalities concerned. At a minimum we must strengthen the existing rent control laws.

It is time to provide substantial property tax cuts by restoring the progressive tax structure and revenue sharing New York State had in the 1970s. The Governor’s recent proposals for so-called property tax relief just builds on the present unjust and unsustainable system. One key step is to not renew the Governor’s property tax cap program which continues to starve our local governments and residents of needed investments.

It is time for a major new public housing program to help desegregate residential patterns along with stronger enforcement of fair housing laws. Unlike the old large-scale projects that concentrated poverty and minorities in poor communities of color, the new public housing should be built in the cities and the suburbs as humanly-scaled, scatter-site, high-quality projects that are mixed income and ethnicity and powered by green energy. This new public housing program will be a jobs program, an affordable housing program, and a clean energy program as well as a desegregation program.

Segregated housing results in the most segregated schools in the nation as well. This segregation concentrates poor people of color in schools that are hyper-segregated by class as well as race and under-resourced by the seventh most inequitable state school funding system among the 50 states. The gap in per student spending between the richest and poorest school districts is now $8,733, the largest in New York history and growing. Overall state school funding is at a 65-year low as a proportion of the state budget. Governor Cuomo wants to test, punish, and privatize public schools through high-stakes testing designed to “fail” students, teachers, and schools in disadvantaged segregated communities so they can be privatized with the help of an increase in the charter school cap and private tuition tax credits.

The Green response is to reject privatization and to fully fund public schools. Foundation Aid must be fully funded. The state should end high-stakes testing to evaluate students, teachers, and schools. The school aid formula should be reformed so it is more need-based. The state should support school desegregation programs such as intra- and inter-district public school choice, consolidation, and incentives (such as magnet schools).

Cuomo’s proposed two years of debt relief for SUNY students who meet certain criteria is insufficient. It does not help students who do not graduate, often for economic reasons, and does nothing to reduce rising costs. The Greens support tuition-free SUNY and CUNY along the lines of the Tuition-Free NY bill introduced in the last legislative session.

Police killings of unarmed black men across that nation and in New York are in the headlines and have prompted a movement for criminal justice reforms in their wake. These killings are just one extreme manifestation of a criminal justice system that has produced mass incarceration of poor people of color, a New Jim Crow.

The Greens have called for many reforms to the criminal justice system in New York State. The reforms need to go beyond better police training and community policing. They need to end the militarization of the police, the war on drugs, police profits from asset forfeiture and federal funding based on local drug busts, and the targeting of poor communities of color for over-policing and arrests for petty offenses under the rubric of “broken windows.”

Although Governor Cuomo has indicated that public campaign financing is a non-starter in the coming legislative session, the Greens will continue to push for ethics reform. To undermine the financial roots of the pay-to-play culture of corruption in Albany, Greens will support the bill for full, not partial, public campaign financing and call for full-time state legislators who are barred from earning outside income while serving.

A Green New Deal is inconceivable under the austerity policies that Governor Cuomo has supported in his first four budgets and promises to continue in his fifth. Cuomo tells local governments to cut spending in order to cut property taxes. Cuomo’s 2 percent property tax cap combined with a freeze in revenue-sharing at a low level forces local governments to pay for state mandates by raising regressive sales and property taxes. These policies have put many municipalities and school districts in fiscal distress. Meanwhile, Cuomo’s proposed circuit breaker on property taxes for low and moderate income people requires a fiscal surplus that can only be realized by another $7.7 billion in unnamed spending cuts through 2018.

The Green alternative is progressive tax reform and revenue sharing. The Greens want to restore the more progressive tax structure and revenue revenue sharing New York had in the 1970s. The more progressive tax structure would raise upwards of $25 billion in additional revenue while giving 95 percent of New Yorkers a tax cut. The state would share 8 percent of its revenues with local governments, which would be sufficient pay for state mandates and fully fund local services and schools. Revenue sharing would promote more equitable tax burdens and service levels by compensating for the uneven distribution of taxable property across local government jurisdictions. We have outlined many times how the additional revenues from more progressive taxation could be spent to finance revenue sharing and the Green New Deal. It is a shame that there is no substantial movement or prominent advocate in either of the major parties for progressive tax reform and revenue sharing.

The Greens recognize that the economically conservative policies shared by Governor Cuomo and the Senate Republicans leave little scope for many of the progressive reforms we call for in the coming legislative session. As the opposition party to the two corporate-sponsored parties, we will continue to campaign for these reforms during the legislative session and in the next legislative elections. We have hope that working with allies we can achieve some progress on a number of issues, including changing the state’s energy policies, increasing school funding and slowing high-stakes testing and privatization, criminal justice reform, and single-payer health care.

-Howie Hawkins
January 19, 2015