NEW YORK — It looks like this city and state will be spared the worst of the “doomsday” budget crisis, thanks to the continued fightback of unions and community organizations, but the struggle goes on.

“Now’s not the time to take hot meals away from our seniors, to tell our children to fend for themselves when schools let out,” said Lillian Roberts, executive director of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees District Council 37 (AFSCME DC37). “Now is not the time to cut our hospitals and healthcare … Now is the time to cut the waste and tax the wealthy.”

On March 3, over 40,000 people gathered in Albany in what organizers say was the largest demonstration in support of public education in the state’s history. In April, AFSCME DC 37, the main union of New York City public workers, sponsored the largest rally in its history, when over 30,000 members and supporters converged in City Hall Park. A few days later Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union marched and rallied in Albany in support of healthcare.

Their work has begun to pay off, at both the state and the New York City levels. The State Assembly and Senate have passed their own budget, in opposition to that of Governor George E. Pataki. The Working Families Party (WFP), which has been a major player in the battle against the cuts, reports that the Legislature’s budget restores between $2 billion and $2.5 billion of Pataki’s cuts. It would restore about three-quarters of cut school aid. and reduce the state university’s tuition increase to $950 from $1,200. Out of $2 billion in cuts that Pataki slated for healthcare, the Legislature’s budget restores $1.5 billion. The restorations would be funded by a very small personal income tax increase on higher incomes, which would raise around $1.5 billion, and a .25 percent sales tax increase. Also, a few corporate tax loopholes would be closed.

“It’s a very difficult situation … we’re not happy with the Legislature’s proposal either. The sales tax increase isn’t the worst of it. The worst feature is that the cuts are still quite substantial,” Josh Mason, policy coordinator for the WFP, told the World. “This is still not okay, but in a real sense, we did win. It’s a much better outcome than the governor was proposing.”

The governor has said that he will veto the Legislature’s proposed budget. However, due to public pressure, many Republicans in the Legislature, including Majority leader Sen. Joe Bruno, are opposed to Pataki’s plan. It looks as though enough votes can be mustered to override a gubernatorial veto.

The new state budget would not help New York City fix its budget problems, but a tentative deal has been reached in Albany to help the city with about a billion dollars. According to Mason, even though the proposal has not been formally introduced, there is a consensus among the four main players, Bruno, Speaker of the Assembly Democrat Sheldon Silver, Mayor Bloomberg, and Gifford Miller, speaker of the New York City Council. The billion dollars would come from the state assuming responsibility for about $500 million of city debts with an increase in the state sales tax, a small tax on the rich and the sale of new taxi medallions. The City Council has already voted in favor of the plan.

Much like at the state level, this is still not what unions and community leaders had hoped for. It includes a sales tax increase, which affects poorer citizens disproportionately. Also, even with the billion dollars, the city is short $600 million. Mayor Bloomberg is demanding from the unions that city workers make up this shortfall.

“There are more millionaires in this city than any other city on the face of the earth. What is wrong with millionaires paying?” asked AFSCME International President Gerald McEntee at the DC37 rally. The union has produced several white papers showing that $600 million could be raised by the elimination of the waste that has resulted from privatization of city services and by imposing small taxes on the rich.

“If there hadn’t been people out marching and fighting, if unions hadn’t gotten involved, we would have ended up with something that looked a lot more like Pataki’s budget,” said WFP’s Mason. “There definitely has been a victory.”

The author can be reached at dmargolis@cpusa.org

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