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Will "Occupy Wall Street" Occupy the Debate in Statehouses?

As the Occupy Wall Street movement spreads across the nation and occupations promise to continue into the winter months, the physical presence of the protesters and their effective communication of the widely shared concerns of “the 99%” about the consolidation of wealth and political power is already having a significant impact on the public debate. Reeling from Occupy-inspired criticism and watching as hundreds of thousands of their customers move their money to smaller banks and credit unions, big banks like Bank of America this week backtracked on their plans to institute yet another proposed fee for debit card use. With gridlock in Congress continuing, the most significant political impact of the Occupy protests may ultimately be felt in statehouses, where the renewed national focus on the consequences of historic levels of inequality are showing signs of revitalizing prospects for a host of progressive economic policies, including one key demand of the protests: asking the 1% to pay their fair share.

In New York state, the “Millionaires’ Tax,” a surtax on incomes over $200,000 a year for individuals or $300,000 a year for families, was enacted in 2009 and is set to expire on December 31st at a cost of $5 billion to a state budget that has already ready seen huge cuts. The expiration of the surtax has gonel egislatively unaddresed so far this year, but as new proposals for jobs measures by the White House and the Senate have included a surtax on millionaires, and as Occupy protests have made economic inequality their overriding message, the issue has been put back on the front burner.

Polls have shown that New Yorkers broadly support not allowing the millionaires’ tax to expire at the end of the year. A recent Siena poll showed that 72% of all New York voters support extending the tax instead of enacting further budget cuts, including 55% of all Republicans. Another recent New York poll by Quinnipiac shows voters backing an extension of the millionaires’ tax by a more than 2-to-1 margin, winning 57% support from Republicans. With this renewed attention, Gov. Cuomo has admitted feeling pressure to change his position in opposition to the tax, and lawmakers and analysts alike credit the Occupy protests with influencing the legislative debate. “We have everybody joining together now to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ and we’re hoping our elected officials are going to start listening to us,” Ron Deutsch, executive director of New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness, told a reporter from the New York Times.

Will the shift in the national political debate have a similar effect in other statehouses? If national polling is any indication, it very well may. Across the nation, the level of support for asking the wealthy to pay their fair share reaches similar levels in polls. One recent national poll showed 68%-27% support for the federal surtax on millionaires to pay for parts of the federal jobs bill. Polling in other individual states reflects this national trend as well — a North Carolina survey this week shows residents backing raising taxes on millionaires by a 2-to-1 margin.

Despite the increasing popularity of progressive revenue-generating proposals to avoid more job-killing cuts, challenges to enacting such measures remain. In Colorado this week, a proposal that would have raised personal and corporate income tax rates slightly across the board in order to fund education went down in the only significant statewide ballot initiative on taxes up for a vote this year. With the public clearly on the side of progressives on this issue and appearing to continue to move in that direction, policymakers and legislators can capitalize on the political space being opened up by “the 99%” by advancing policies that ask the wealthiest to pay their fair share and address the rampant economic inequality, corporate influence on politics, and other concerns that are hitting home with more and more Americans.

Full Resources from this Article

Will "Occupy Wall Street" Occupy the Debate in Statehouses?

Media Matters — Message Matters: Tax Cuts for Millionaires But Not the Middle Class
New York Times — Editorial: Flat Taxes and Angry Voters
Bloomberg News — Poll: Americans Back Taxing Rich

This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.
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