Pecking Order

Richard Reeves

December 04, 1990|By Richard Reeves

SAG HARBOR, NEW YORK. — Sag Harbor, New York.

"THE BUCK Stops Here,'' said the little sign on the desk of President Harry S Truman. President Bush should get one that says, ''The Buck Starts Here.''

The buck now stops here, in Sag Harbor, this village of 3,000 people. The state of New York, through Gov. Mario Cuomo, announced last week that it intended to cut this year's school aid to the village by $182,141 -- that's out of total annual aid of $949,787. The cut amounts to 20 percent.

This is the same Governor Cuomo who was complaining two months ago about the evils of what he called ''fend-for-yourself federalism that forces the states to go it alone.'' Then, he was attacking the Reagan-Bush policies of dumping federal obligations onto the taxpayer shoulders of the states. Now Governor Cuomo wants to do the same thing to those governmentally below him: He hopes to cut his proposed state budget by $1 billion to avoid raising taxes. The easiest way to do that is to shift the burden -- down.

This is the new ''domino theory'': The feds cut their budget by pushing spending onto the states, and the states push as much as they can onto counties, cities, towns and villages. Just in time, too, because the old domino theory -- if a country went communist it was only a matter of time before its neighbors did -- turned out to be wrong over the long run.

The new theory is a particularly destructive form of taxation with representation because obligations from schooling and health care and highway maintenance and environmental protection, which are often mandated by federal or state law, are trickling down (or just evaporating), but taxing power is still going the other way. It is the federal government that has the most productive, most collectible and fairest tax weaponry, beginning with income taxes. The states have more limited income-taxing capability along with sales taxes and lotteries. Localities, more or less, have to depend almost completely on property taxes -- hitting hardest on old people, on folks with fixed incomes.

There is only so much a government can do with property taxes, because they are so personal, so direct -- inviting tax revolts and other citizen action. One county in California had to threaten bankruptcy recently -- just close the doors of the county building -- to get enough state help to pay for the governmental tasks ordered by the same state.

In New York, one county, Ulster, a small county of 168,000 90 miles north of New York City that had managed to keep taxes stable for almost a decade, is trying to figure out how to sue the state after calculating that its obligations this year would translate into an 82 percent increase in property taxes -- on top of a 42 percent increase last year.

One more percentage: 70 percent of Ulster's $151 million in annual expenditures are mandated by federal or state law. The biggest mandated items in the Ulster budget are beyond the county's control, mental-health services and Medicaid. The Medicaid bill for Ulster will be $15 million, compared with $10 million last year.

Out here, 100 miles east of the city, the biggest hits will be on education and health care. Voters in Suffolk County will, I have no doubt, exercise their ballot power to approve or reject school budgets. They will reject them, led by the American Association of Retired People, political home to many old people who have discovered what they believe is a new human right: the right of humans without children in school to refuse to pay for other people's children.

The unkindest spending cut out here, suggested by Governor Cuomo, is a proposal to turn off the lights on state parkways. ''It's a luxury we can no longer afford,'' said a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. The savings in the state budget would total $2.4 million.

But what about accidents? Aren't dark roads more dangerous?

''Well,'' said the spokesman, ''we expect the counties will pick up the costs.''

No, they won't. I have seen the future, and it's dark.

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