The Budget From Hell

In case you haven’t heard, the economy is in the toilet. Across the country, Governors are trying to plug the worst deficits in a generation and from New York to California, the State budgets in front of the legislators are full of bad news. But in New York, which for so many years banked (on) the profits from Wall Street taxes as if they would never end, the budget is worse than usual. It’s the budget from hell.

Governor Paterson has tried to assure us, the taxpayers and voters, that he has spread the pain around, and to some extent he has: no form of business or creativity or essential services appears safe from cuts in spending or an increase in taxes. But there is spreading the pain and there is being sadistic, and Paterson’s budget leans so far to the latter that I am embarrassed to find myself living in New York State.


It beggars belief, for example, that at a time when the USA, once the world’s economic engine, is seen lagging behind former third world countries, and we need our students to catch up with the 21st Century, the Governor would choose to cut so much money from education spending. All across the State, school boards, which have to pass their own budgets over the next few weeks, are in the process of trying to explain to their communities why they have to either fire teachers from the classroom (and social workers, and cut summer schools etc. etc.) or pass on the State’s cuts to the taxpayers, who are already saddled with a ludicrous system whereby their property taxes finance most of the local School District’s expenditure. Our school district alone is looking at approximately $700,000 less in funding from the State next year; if passed on to the taxpayers, that adds another 2% to their school taxes, on top of an annual raise in the budget/tax levy that generally follows the consumer price index (currently around 4%). Not only is this something that homeowners have no say in, not only is it something they can’t afford, but the cuts are an insult to those who believe we should have higher State funding for education, not lower. There are politicians in the State Assembly opposed to these cuts, and there is hope that money from the Federal Stimulus Package will make up the shortfall if Paterson’s budget is approved, but the cuts should never have been presented in the first place.


Yet the budget goes further. It proposes that families who participate in New York’s Early Intervention (EI) program, which currently provides free services to
0-3-year-old children who have developmental delays or disabilities, would have to pay for the services. Families earning as little as $29,000 for a family of three would have to make monthly payments for each eligible child. If a family missed even one payment, the child would lose EI services and become ineligible for EI. This one is personal: I have a child with developmental delays. I have seen how the bureaucrats tried to avoid placing him in EI because of the costs. But I have also been able to see, first hand, how getting help at a young age – in our case, a specialist pre-school as well as home visitation – has played a massive role in his advancement. It’s my hope (and belief) that at some point we will have a fully functioning child who will contribute to society as any other child or adult. The thought that the State is willing to abandon these struggling infants to the free market is beyond my comprehension. People do not have money right now. If this proposal in the budget passes, poor families with children who desperately need Early Intervention services will go without. The children will fall further behind. We will all pay for their disabilities, physical or developmental, later down the line. It seems to me a no-brainer that the State make such services the last line of defense, not the first.


And here’s something else that happens when the economy goes bad. People use their local libraries more. They can’t afford to buy books, they might not be able to afford to read their newspaper at Starbucks, they may not even be able to afford their Internet connection; they go to the library to get these things for free. (Well, not the cappuccino, obviously!) Library use is up 14% across the State right now. What does the budget have in store for libraries? An 18% cut in funding. Again, why why why is it always education, libraries and health care that are first on the budget chopping block? Our libraries are among our greatest assets; I use mine relentlessly, and I know countless other families who do likewise. The local libraries have already had to cut back their hours over the years because of financial pressures; some are no longer able to even afford to purchase new books. Cutting library funding by such a drastic amount right at the point that usage is up so much suggests, again, that we as a people don’t care about education and knowledge, whether for children, adults, retirees or anyone in-between. And I would like to believe otherwise of us.


Do I have the answers? No, though I’m willing to see higher taxes where they make sense, on wine and beer and soda and cigarettes and gasoline. I am even willing, under the circumstances, to ignore the pleas from my local ski mountains and suffer the proposed 4% ski tax. I know perfectly well that adding 4% to the cost of a lift ticket will price it out of some peoples’ reach; I know that the mountains in New York State are already in a losing battle against Vermont, with its steeper slopes and greater snowfall and comparable ticket prices. I don’t even consider skiing a luxury, but a wonderful recreational sport that many local schools offer as part of their physical education programs. I also know that once the tax is applied, it will be there for ever, and that before we know it, it will be 5%, and higher still. But under the budget crunch, I will swallow it: it’s my choice to ski.


But there’s another plan in the budget intended to raise millions in quick revenue, and this one I totally abhor. In his budget presentation of December 16, the Governor proposed to legalize and allow the sale of wine in grocery stores, justifying it by stating that all the extra licenses would raise millions upon millions of dollars. What’s the big deal, you might ask? (Especially if you live in the UK, where the sale of wine in supermarkets is routine.) And I in turn might ask you to consider the news from the perspective of the wine store owner. Imagine being in a business which, as legislated by your State, allows you to own only ONE retail store – because that’s long been the way the law works in New York. No matter how successful your wine store, you can’t open another one. Not if your customers love you, not if you see the opportunity a few miles away in another town, not if a another store owner is retiring and begs you to take over his business. You can’t do it. It’s not allowed. Nor, for that matter, are you allowed to sell beer, or food. (Or even gift bags. A store in Rochester was fined $10,000 for selling gift bags – apparently you can only give them away.) Until just a few years ago, you weren’t allowed to open on Sundays, either – even though your customers clamored for it and you were the only retail business not allowed to do so.

Now imagine that, with barely three months’ advance notice, your same legislators announces that those businesses that already exist as chains – from Stewarts up to Hannafords, Whole Foods through to WalMart and Costco (the latter two being the biggest wine retailers in the nation) – have the right to sell your goods. They already sell beer and food; you don’t. They can continue to sell beer and food; you can’t. They can now sell wine too; they can buy it in bulk, they can undercut your prices until they put you out of business. There’s a Stewarts store at every other gas station around here. But there’s only Partition Street Wine Shop; only one Hurley Ridge Wine and Spirits; only one Wine Steward. I’ve met the people at all these stores: they’re hard working, they’re passionate, and they choose to do what they do even though they’re hemmed in by enough legalese to drive them crazy. The Hurley Ridge store sits right alongside a supermarket; so does Boiceville Wine & Spirits. What do you think will happen to these stores when the supermarkets start selling almost the only product the wine stores can claim for themselves? Do you really think they’ll survive?

You might say that the increased choice and presumably lower prices will benefit the consumer. (This is the WalMart argument of course: cheaper prices at all costs.) You might say that boutique wine stores will survive and thrive because supermarkets will only sell cheap wine in bulk and there will always be a market for good wine that’s hard to find. (Yes, but the majority of wine stores make most of their money from the low—end wines they already sell for as low a mark-up as possible.) You might say that wine stores will continue to thrive because they make their money from liquor/spirits. (This may be true of old-fashioned liquor stores, like the one in Phoenicia; it is not true of most wine stores.) You may say, hey it works in the UK. (But you forget, the UK doesn’t prohibit wine stores from multiple licenses, which is why most “specialist” wine stores are, in fact, part of a chain. The reason Oddbins is so successful is because there’s more than one of them!)

Or, then again, you may look at this from the perspective of the wine store owner and agree with the title of their grassroots PR campaign: Last Store on Main Street. If there has been one benefit as yet from the financial meltdown it’s the return of community values: an understanding that when times are tough we can find much of what we need on our own doorsteps, in our own villages and towns and network of friends. (And again, this harks back to the importance of libraries.) It’s true that the number of boutique wine stores increased in direct ratio to the good times of the last decade and a half; it’s evident that many such stores will need to focus more on value for money, inexpensive wine if they want to stay in business. That’s an understandable “market correction” and I’m all for it. But allowing the behemoths of retail capitalism to walk right in and snatch up one of the very last niche areas limited – by law – to individual retailers who have suffered all the vagaries of their specialist license is the equivalent of kicking a community when its down. I believe in Main Street. I believe in local stores. I believe in small business. In mom and pop. I don’t need to be able to buy my wine from WalMart – or even Stewart’s. I’m willing to walk next door, or drive into the village, and get it from a retailer who hopefully knows and cares about his product. Are you? If so, please visit and see what you can do to keep the stores alive.

I’m off to the UK now. No doubt over the next week I’ll hear plenty about the financial meltdown in Britain and across Europe. I hope I will hear that legislators have better ideas up their sleeves than those of Governor Paterson. And I trust that here in New York State, our truly local legislators – in my case it’s Assemblyman Kevin Cahill and Senator John Bonacic – will stand up for education, early intervention, library funding, and the preservation of small businesses at a time that we need them more than ever.

Alliance For Quality Education
Petition to Preserve Early Intervention Services
MidHudson LIbraries
Stop The Ski Tax
Last Store On Main Street
Steven Kolpan’s article in the Valley Table about proposed legislature affecting the New York wine industry

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