If there’s one thing the Occupy Wall Street crowd agrees on, it’s that New York should expand its “millionaire tax” on high-income earners. But the soak-the-rich platform is built on factual distortions and a partisan rewrite of history — as two state lawmakers who support that agenda have just demonstrated.

Writing online (a good way to reach the tech-savvy anti-capitalists in Zuccotti Park), state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Queens) unleash this series of whoppers:

“For decades, the Republican Party has pursued a longterm strategy to undermine government’s ability to protect workers and the environment by shifting its costs to those who can least afford it: From 1977 through 1997, New York’s top income-tax rate was repeatedly cut to the point where married couples in New York making $40,000 a year paid the same income tax rate as someone making $10 million a year, and families making $55,000 a year paid a 22 percent higher share of their income in combined state and local taxes than did families making over $3 million a year.”

The truth is that most of the reduction of New York’s top income-tax rate between 1977 and 1997 came under Democratic Govs. Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, who took the top rate down from 15.35 percent to 7.875 percent. They did so with support from both Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature, reflecting a bipartisan consensus that high taxes had damaged New York’s economic competitiveness.

When it came to savings for the wealthy, Republican Gov. George Pataki was a tax-cutting cheapskate compared to his predecessors. His 1995 tax reform cut the top rate by a single added point, generating a marginal reduction of 13 percent for millionaires — and expanded other tax benefits to generate an average cut of 25 percent for middle-income families.

(As a result, the state became more dependent than ever on taxes generated by a relative handful of wealthy filers — a double-edged sword, as Albany learned when the fiscal crisis wiped out tens of billions of dollars in capital gains and bonuses for the Wall Street set.)

Far from “shifting … costs to those who can least afford it,” the lone Republican out of New York’s last six governors spearheaded a massive expansion of the Earned Income Credit — thanks to which, over a million low-income workers now pay little or no income tax at all while cashing an annual EIC check from Albany, with the largest tax credits reserved for those who earn the least and have the largest families to support.

Contrary to another Squadron-Lancman argument, married couples with incomes of $40,000 a year do not pay the same income-tax rate as someone making $10 million a year. As a percentage of gross income, a wealthy family pays well over twice as much as a childless middle-class couple, and more than 10 times as much as a $40,000-a-year family with a couple of kids.

In fact, under the permanent New York law, filers with $10 million in income will typically pay something close to the top rate of 6.85 percent (well over $600,000), regardless of family size. The temporary “millionaire tax” hike of 2009, due to expire at the end of this year, raised taxes on a $10 million earner by over $200,000.

The legislators’ claim that families making $55,000 pay a higher combined state-local tax burden than a family with income over $3 million is derived from a multistate tax-distribution model that, while popular with “tax-fairness” advocates, is flawed and misleading in several respects. It assumes, for instance, that a typical household in the wealthiest 1 percent of New York families is subject only to the state income tax — when, in fact, roughly half live in New York City, and must pay the city income tax, as well.

To paraphrase the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Squadron and Lancman are entitled to their opinions but not to their own facts. If they think higher taxes are the answer to New York’s problems, they should simply say so. And they should explain why the lessons of the past — lessons that motivated Hugh Carey, Mario Cuomo and their contemporaries to lower tax rates — can now be safely ignored.

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is Empire Center's founder and a senior fellow.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

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