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New York’s new budget: is ‘sin’ too strong a word? 

It's an embarrassingly easy target, but I'll join the piling-on: With the new state budget, New York legislators have reached a new low, giving tax breaks for big yachts.

And while it's a small giveaway in the overall scheme of things, it's a nice symbol of how Albany operates.

Legislators wouldn't increase the minimum wage, but they had no problem with letting owners of big yachts avoid sales tax on any amount they spend over $230,000. You don't have to read any of the media reports to know legislators' justification: It's a job creator. Promise to create jobs, and elected officials are at your service.

Oh... and this particular tax break makes New York "competitive."

Some of us who inhabit a different world didn't know that tax breaks on yachts were a competitive thing, but indeed they are. Before the state legislature came to the rescue, if you bought a $3 million yacht in Florida, you paid less sales tax than if you had bought the same yacht in New York. We've leveled the playing field.

What'll happen if the Florida legislature gets wind of this and lowers the tax down there? You don't have to ask.

This is how we do things, of course, not just in New York but throughout the country. Want businesses to move to your state (or your county or city or suburb)? Give them a tax break. And other places follow suit. And we dive on downward. And there's less money available for schools and health care and infrastructure.

(Factoid: Want to know how much state funding for the arts in this region dropped between 2001 and 2013? Sixty percent, according to the latest report from ACT Rochester.)

We could stop this, but that would require one of two things: federal action, or an immense amount of ethics, fortitude, common sense, and cooperation among all of the states. Neither is gonna happen.

So we're left with interstate competition over taxes on high-priced yachts. And it's no mystery how that's going to play out.

The Empire Center's E.J. McMahon, quoted in an Atlantic article, noted that the yacht-tax giveaway is actually small fish. "As tax breaks for wealthy individuals go," he said, "this will be perhaps the smallest one around."

And in his own blog last week, McMahon noted this: "Of course, the same sort of justifications are offered for bigger special tax breaks in New York's loophole-ridden tax code, such as the $420 million-a-year Film Tax Credit. The passage of the yacht exemption will only add to pressure for more 'job creating' giveaways, like a proposed music production tax credit that failed to make it into the budget despite a lobbying push from the industry."

We can complain about plenty of things in New York's new budget, starting with the fact that so much of what's in it was passed without public discussion.

And despite everybody's presumed outrage over corruption in Albany, the budget includes a tepid ethics reform package: "underwhelming and uninspiring," critic Dick Dadey of Citizens Union told New York State Public Radio's Karen DeWitt.

A statement signed by Dadey and representatives of Common Cause, the Brennan Center for Justice, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and Reinvent Albany warned that "these steps are simply insufficient to fully address the parade of scandals that have engulfed Albany and will do little to restore the public's growing cynicism about its own government."

We all know it takes all kinds of wheeling and dealing to create the sausage that is the state budget. To get good things, we often end up with bad things. But this particular budget says so much about where the state is right now. And where this country is.

We know what legislators will say: They were there. We weren't. They see the big picture. We don't.

We just don't understand.

Nope. We don't.

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