Lawrence Wittner: Are tax-free havens on campus a good idea?

Lawrence Wittner: Are tax-free havens on campus a good idea?

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Should a public university be transformed into a corporate welfare project? That’s the key question surrounding “Tax-Free NY,” a new plan zealously promoted by New York Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, with nationwide implications.

Under the provisions of his Tax-Free NY scheme, most of the 64 campuses of the State University of New York (SUNY), some private colleges, and zones adjacent to SUNY campuses would be thrown open to private businesses that would be exempted from state taxes on sales, property, the income of their owners, and the income of their employees for a period of 10 years. According to the governor, this creation of tax-free havens for private, profit-making companies is designed to create economic development and jobs, especially in upstate New York.

Joined by businessmen, politicians, and top SUNY administrators, Cuomo has embarked on a full court press for his plan. Tax-Free NY, he announced, was “a game-changing initiative that will transform SUNY campuses and university communities across the state.” Conceding that these tax-free zones wouldn’t work without a dramatic “culture shift” in the SUNY system, Cuomo argued that faculty would have to “get interested and participate in entrepreneurial activities.” As he declared in mid-May, the situation was “delicate, because academics are academics. ... But you can be a great academic and you can be entrepreneurial, and I would argue you’d be a better academic if you were actually entrepreneurial.”

In fact, the commercialization of American college and university life has been advancing steadily in recent years. Thousands of U.S. students are paid by businesses to market products on their campuses, large numbers of university presidents serve on one or more corporate boards, administrators sport new titles such as Kmart Chair of Marketing and BankAmerica Dean, and for-profit universities now dot the American landscape. Indeed, some universities run their own industrial parks, venture capital funds, and joint business-university research centers.

Even so, Tax-Free NY appears to be an important milestone in the corporatization of higher education, for SUNY is the nation’s largest public university system. Only a few years ago, New York State law prohibited businesses from operating on SUNY campuses. But that barrier has been swept away, and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher is now a leading cheerleader for Tax-Free NY.

SUNY’s faculty and staff, on the other hand, have a greater stake in preserving the university’s traditional role of education and the advancement of knowledge. United University Professions, the union that represents 35,000 faculty and other professional staff on SUNY campuses, has been disturbed for years by the state government’s abandonment of its legal commitment to fund public higher education. Nearly 75 percent of the university’s operating budget comes from ever-rising tuition and fees. A decade ago, the state covered 75 percent of SUNY’s budget.

Rejecting Tax-Free NY, the union argues that any available space on SUNY’s campuses should be dedicated to improving education through smaller class size and improved student services, that there are no assurances that business entities would support the academic mission of campuses, and that the tax-cutting plan would diminish tax revenues that could be used for public education.

Also, there is considerable doubt that Tax-Free NY will spur economic growth. The Citizens Budget Commission, a business-backed group, has reported that New York State already spends about $7 billion annually to foster economic development without any evidence that this funding has been productive. Criticizing Tax-Free NY, Crain’s New York Business, a leading commercial publication, stated that “history tells us these kinds of strategies don’t work.”

Significant criticism of the governor’s plan has begun to emerge. The small Conservative Party — a key ally of the Republican Party — formally denounced Tax-Free NY, arguing that “government should not be deciding what businesses receive government handouts that give them advantages over other businesses.” Journalists asked the governor what would stop the favored companies from simply packing up and leaving after their decade of tax breaks. According to the president of the Civil Service Employees Association: “The governor doesn’t get the fact that more corporate welfare is no answer to New York’s economic challenges.”

Why, then, despite the obvious limitations of Tax-Free NY, is the governor promoting it so vigorously? One reason, some observers contend, is that Cuomo has his eyes on a run for the White House. Determined to win re-election by a huge margin, he needs to strengthen his sagging appeal in upstate New York to do so. In addition, Cuomo has been closely allied with the state’s corporate leaders, who have poured millions of dollars into promoting his pro-business agenda. Championing tax cuts to business helps cement this alliance.

Ironically, it’s quite possible that the governor could spur economic growth and job creation if he just reversed his proposal. Instead of throwing more tax dollars at profit-making businesses while starving public education, he could channel that same money into the SUNY system. In this fashion, he would help build the kind of university that, through its intellectual excellence, would foster advanced scientific experimentation, economic innovation, and a highly educated workforce. But that’s not his plan. Corporations, politicians, and educators across the country are watching closely.

Lawrence Wittner is history professor emeritus at SUNY/Albany. This column was provided by the PeaceVoice Program of the Oregon Peace Institute.

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