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ON THE SCENE: A moral budget for 2019
January 4, 2019

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The New York Council of Churches is calling upon Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York state senators and members of the Assembly to pass a moral budget - a budget that will fight poverty and racism, reduce tax inequity, protect the environment, address climate change, reduce the influence of big money in elections and support economic incentives that will benefit all New Yorkers.

Led by the Rev. Peter Manning Cook, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and founded in 1889, the New York Council of Churches represents a broad array of Protestant faiths that include the American Baptist Churches, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church, and United Church of Christ.

"Many New Yorkers live in abject poverty," said Cook. "We need to take that wealth inequality seriously by investing in lower- and middle-class communities. We are keenly aware of many of the challenges faced by people in the North Country. For instance, schools don't get the funding they should because the state relies too much on property taxes to subsidize them, which puts big pressure on individual homeowners in rural communities that do not have a strong industrial base."

Cook urged increased investment in infrastructure, green technology and affordable housing. He noted that in New York 45 percent of the population had to spend more than 33 percent of their income on housing and highlighted the great distances that many North Country residents have to travel for work.

"People at the very top of the economic ladder are primarily located in three or four zip codes," said Cook. "They need to be asked to pay a little more. They were the overwhelming beneficiaries of the Tax Cut Jobs Act. In our view, tiers should be added to the Millionaire's Tax to reflect the higher echelons of income. We feel that the state should not just collect but keep the stock transfer tax. Those two initiatives would add billions to the state budget enabling it to pick up, for instance, more of the health costs like Medicaid that are currently borne by counties."

Cook said that the state needs to be more aggressive in addressing climate change and putting in infrastructure that moves us toward a green economy and away from a fossil fuel-based economy. As a person who certifies and trains chaplains who work in prisons, Cook is aware that many in the North Country depend on prisons for jobs and would like to see justice reform that would lead to a reduction in the number of prisons, and investments made to diversify the economy of our region.

As a means of fighting poverty and racism, the New York Council of Churches calls for investments in early learning, public and higher education, and health care along with creating a fair criminal justice system for all as a means of expanding opportunities for people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, and to break the cycle of poverty.

The council feels that the 2 percent spending cap is neither progressive nor effective as a means of reducing the tax burden of average New Yorkers and that it cuts into a community's ability to invest in economic development initiatives. They feel that New York has some of the worst voting laws in the country that disenfranchise voters, that we should make it easier for people to register and vote.

I reached out to several locals to hear what they felt were our challenges and what they hoped a moral budget would address. For Dan Plumley, a partner and co-leader of Adirondack Wild, he thought that from the standpoint of addressing climate change and the environment that the focus should be on environmental justice, ending our carbon-based energy and economy and creating a healthy planet for future generations to experience.

"If we as a people are to adopt a truly moral budget that advances the social contract, we should as a first priority seek to advance environmental justice initiatives for minorities and Native Americans," said Plumley. "They, by want of their location and lack of resources, suffer far more from pollution impacts caused by our corporations and government indifference. More broadly, we have to once and for all confront climate change aggressively and transform our carbon-based energy economy to advance the opportunities and environmental sustainability for all future generations."

Terri Morse, director of Essex County Mental Health and DCS, would like to see more resources put toward strengthening the emotional and physical health of our youth, which includes providing affordable education, health care, housing and transportation. She directed me to the ALICE Report, a United Way acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed - people that we see and don't see every day who cannot always pay the bills, have nothing in savings, and have to make tough choices between paying the rent and purchasing quality food or medicine.

According to the ALICE Report, about 30 percent of the residents of Essex Country fit this economic profile. Technically, they are not living in poverty, but in reality, they are living on the edge and not in the position to move themselves and their families forward. Many work two or more minimum wage jobs to get by.

"ALICE's are people who have jobs, are not on Medicaid, but they are one paycheck away from being on Medicaid, from being in poverty," said Terri Morse. "We need to be giving kids tools at a very early age on how to be emotionally intelligent. In some ways, the schools are focusing on this, and in some ways, many schools are not implementing such programs early enough. They do it on a high school level or with BOCES kids, but they are not doing it across the board. We are further ahead than we used to be but not far enough to turn the tide."

Morse feels that because of how we fund schools they do not have the resources. Plus the schools are so regulated that teachers don't have the time to implement all the quality mental wellness programming they know is needed to counter our addiction epidemic. Morse had high praise for what teachers do accomplish and stressed that combatting the addiction epidemic is not the job of teachers, that it requires a community commitment, sustainable emotionally satisfying employment for parents, affordable housing and government entities that set as their top priority the well-being of all their citizens.

"A moral budget would address basic needs like clothing, food, shelter; those things," said the Rev. John Sampson, pastor of the Keene Valley Congregational Church. "I think what our government is being called to do by the New York Council of Churches is to consider on more of a structural level how we cannot just meet needs for today and tomorrow, but how in five and 10 years we can position our state to provide a good solid livelihood for all our citizens regardless of race, gender, education, or other circumstances."

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