Can New York, Facing Billions of Dollars in Budget Gaps, Afford Reparations?

As the clock begins ticking for New York’s reparations commission to create a report of recommendations to address what Governor Hochul calls the state’s “legacy of slavery” and its “lingering negative effects” on New Yorkers, one question will be whether the state can afford forms of paid reparations. 

“The state doesn’t have extra money lying around to do something like this,” the director of research at the Empire Center for Public Policy, Ken Girardin, tells the Sun. “Folks will say we can always raise taxes higher, and we’re already seeing erosion in the state’s tax base now that the state has the highest combined top tax rate in the nation.” 

While it’s not yet clear what recommendations New York’s commission will come up with in the next year — and whether those proposals will include cash payments — Ms. Hochul has said that reparations “mean more than giving people a simple apology 150 years later.” 

When signing legislation to create the commission, Ms. Hochul acknowledged she had some “concerns” about it but said taking action was necessary as “white supremacism is alive and well in this country.” 

Ms. Hochul’s office did not immediately respond to a request from the Sun to comment about the commission or whether New York has funds to implement forms of reparations involving compensation. The Sun has been unable to reach several members of the reparations commission, and the group does not appear to have a website.

Views towards reparations “vary widely by race and ethnicity,” Pew Research indicates, with 77 percent of Black adults supporting descendants of slaves being “repaid in some way,” while only 18 percent of white Americans agree. 

As reparations efforts have been spreading across the country, New York is a few steps behind California, where a similar commission already issued its report and a legislative battle is underway about how best to implement reparations. 

While a slew of bills introduced by California’s Black Caucus don’t yet include direct cash payments, Cal Matters reports, it’s not “off the table,” as lawmakers say as they seek to find ways to fund reparations. 

“There’s not enough money in the state’s budget or in the national budget to make descendants of slavery whole in this country,” a state senator and member of California’s reparations task force, Steven Bradford, said. 

One assembly member, Reggie Jones-Sawyer, is proposing a tax on products once tied to slave labor, such as gold, sugar, rice, coffee, and tobacco. 

“A group of people gave free labor for 400 years. These commodities benefited greatly from that. We need to be able to figure out a way to excise money so that it can be brought back into the Black community,” he said, per Cal Matters. 

As the country watches California’s reparations unfold, New York’s commission is likely to face mounting questions about how they will be handled in the Empire State. 

One vocal reparations supporter, New York City’s comptroller, Brad Lander, tells the Sun the state’s history with slavery “has hindered the wealth accumulation for Black families for hundreds of years” and that New York “cannot thrive when historical injustices hold a significant portion of our population back.” 

Yet, the reality of New York’s budget constraints could present problems if lawmakers attempt compensation down the road. 

The recent state budget agreement leaves the state “with a significant future structural budget gap likely exceeding $16 billion,” the Citizens Budget Commission estimates, adding that the “budget adds unaffordable spending that increases future gaps.”

“The state of New York does not have the money to finance any new large programs,” Mr. Girardin says, noting that there are plenty of ways to improve quality of life that “don’t involve a monetary payment.”

“If you’re looking to remedy historic injustices in New York then one of the most appropriate places to look would be in the public school system and the extent to which children in cities have been trapped in some of the lowest performing school districts in the country,” he says. 

“The state could remedy that by expanding  school choice and letting more families pick a charter school or another school that better meets their needs,” Mr. Girardin adds.

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