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State of the bunion



One day last week, Albany and Washington tag-teamed for a pair of events. And it sounds like little will be done to heal America's injuries.

            That's the message that came wrapped in George Pataki's 2004 state budget address and George W. Bush's annual State of the Union speech.

            If you listened to both speeches, you saw how Pataki and Bush are unlike each other. (They have some real philosophical differences on the environment and certain social policies, as well.) But it's equally clear their economic views and programs are cribbed from the same answer sheet.

            To see how that's so, look at some of the lowlights in Governor P's and President B's remarks:

Employment Plan P. The governor says his goal is creating one million new private-sector jobs by 2010, and he claims his policies, including tax cuts, have created a half-million new jobs. As you'd expect, the state workforce grows or shrinks with population change, the ups and downs of the economy, and so forth. But one unmistakable and relentless trend under Pataki is the loss of higher-paying manufacturing jobs, which are then replaced by lower-paying service jobs. (The Albany-based Economic Policy Institute says this trend is "more pronounced" in New York State than in the US as a whole.) And Pataki seems to think the only good public-sector job is a dead one. In his budget address, he brags that the "state workforce is leaner and more productive than ever," with "23,000 fewer employees" than in 1995. And by the way, the governor opposes raising the state minimum wage from its current depressed level, $5.15 an hour. His position is that the state minimum should be tied to the federal minimum. (Let them eat consistency?)

            • Employment Plan B. Like Pataki, Bush's "agenda for jobs and growth" hypes tax cuts as the road to paradise. Specifically, he says he wants Congress to make the already-enacted cuts permanent, including what he calls the "death tax" --- the inheritance tax on sizable estates, probably the most progressive tax we've got. Bush's attempt to kill this tax is pure trickle-down economics, and a gift to high-roller heirs at the expense of working people. Anyway, Bush's real agenda is obvious in his support for labor-law changes that deny overtime pay to many workers who now qualify for it. Bush says Americans are the "hardest working" people in the world. One thing's for sure: If he prevails, millions of Americans will be working that much harder and longer to make ends meet.

Health Care Plan P. The governor repeats what he said in his State of the State earlier this month: New York has "the best health care system in the nation." And it's only getting better, to hear him tell it, because of Child Health Plus and Healthy New York and other add-on programs that cover the uncovered. But Pataki chucks Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor and disabled and many seniors in nursing homes, in another hopper, the one marked "major surgery." His "multi-year" state takeover of Medicaid would lift the financial burden from the counties, but he also wants to slash hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Medicaid services. His plan, says the statewide Medicaid Matters coalition, would eliminate some dental and vision benefits, increase co-payments for prescription drugs, and force many families to spend down their assets --- impoverish themselves, actually ---- to qualify for Medicaid long-term care.

            • Health Care Plan B. On this subject, Bush's State of the Union leads with a cheap pun: "A government-run health care system is the wrong prescription." Instead, Bush offers stuff like "association health plans," which would let small businesses and groups join together to buy health insurance. AHPs might opt for "self-insurance," putting more financial burden on other insurance pools; and they might also be exempt from state regs, which is why the National Governors Association opposes them. Also, Bush is still talking about "health savings accounts," which give tax advantages to people who save for unforeseen medical expenses. (If you can't afford this option, do what other poor folks do to save on medical: Don't get sick.) Basically, Bush says the health care system you see is what you'll get. Like Pataki, he wants health care in employers' hands. (Many Rochester Kodakers will soon find out this means "going naked." Meanwhile, workers at Kodak plants in Canada and France, countries with national health plans, will still be covered if they're laid off.)

Education Plan P. The governor accentuates the positive: His budget, he says, will boost state school aid by $150 million, up to a total of $14.6 billion. New York City alone, he says, will get $5.4 billion, and $100 million of this will go to "schools with the greatest need." (He doesn't mention the fact that the state is under a court order to do this, or that he fought in court against a citizens' campaign to make the school-aid formula fairer.) He also rolls the dice, with a proposal to expand gambling to fund schools. A lottery terminal in every garage? That's weird policy --- and a hidden tax.

            • Education Plan B. Bush claims federal school funding has climbed 36 percent since 2001. But it's hardly keeping up with increases in school enrollment and new federal mandates. Washington still does schooling on the cheap: Annual fed spending on education is around a tenth of the typical Bush Pentagon budget. Still, Bush really works at keeping his pet rock, the No Child Left Behind Act, in the public eye. He claims this law "is opening the door of opportunity to all of America's children." Mostly the law is holding the door open to the testing room. On that subject: It's instructive to compare the rhetoric to recent news from the Houston public school system, over which former Texas Governor George W. Bush had some influence. In recent years, the Houston schools have been put up as evidence that a "well-tested" approach works wonders. Now it's been revealed that Houston officials were cooking data, and not in Home Ec. They made things look great by fudging the number of drop-outs and writing creative essays about outcomes.

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