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Are the rich fleeing New York over SALT?

Karen DeWitt
WRVO News (file photo)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo says changes to the federal tax code led to a growing state deficit and is causing some high-income earners to leave the state. But progressive groups, some Democratic state legislators and even some millionaires are pushing back against that assertion, saying there’s no hard evidence that any wealthy New Yorkers are leaving.

The governor met with President Donald Trump on Feb. 12 to try to convince him to change back the tax code, and he started a nationwide campaign to try to get the code overturned. Cuomo said the new limits to deductions for state and local taxes from federal income taxes, known as SALT, harm people in relatively high-tax states like New York. Many wealthier New Yorkers will now have to pay more in taxes than under the old system.

“On any level, how is this fair?” Cuomo asked.

Cuomo blames the state’s growing deficit – it’s now at $2.6 billion – on the SALT changes, although many economic experts believe it’s more likely a result of the downturn in the stock market and smaller bonuses paid to Wall Street executives in 2018.

Cuomo said things will only get worse as the richest New Yorkers change their primary residence to avoid the taxes. And he says it wouldn’t take many people leaving the state to have a big effect on its budget.

The governor said New York has a “very fragile economy,” where the state relies on a very small number of people for a “vast amount” of tax dollars.

When pressed by reporters, Cuomo could not provide hard evidence on wealthy people leaving the state, but he said he’s had indications that some might be departing.

“We have information already on who is paying what and who might be moving,” the governor said. 

Not everyone thinks that the tax changes will cause the rich to flee New York, including the group Patriotic Millionaires.

Morris Pearl, a former hedge fund manager and a member of the group, said he’s not leaving. And he said he is willing to pay more in taxes if the money goes to needed services like schools and subsidized housing and infrastructure projects.

“I can live, frankly, wherever I want live,” said Pearl, who added he stays in New York because he wants to be where new businesses and innovators are flocking. “Not in Kansas, where they have low taxes, not in Florida, but in New York City.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” said Pearl, who lives on the Upper East Side and has offices near the Flatiron Building. 

Pearl said there are more millionaires than ever in New York, as the number of millionaires overall in the U.S. has been growing yearly in recent decades.

“The governor is simply incorrect when he says that people are moving out of New York because of taxes,” Pearl said.

Pearl testified this month before a legislative budget hearing, where he advocated for imposing additional tax brackets beyond the current top rate for those earning $1 million or more a year. Proposals by Democrats in the Senate and Assembly include new, higher rates for those earning more than $5 million a year, more than $10 million a year, and more than $100 million a year.

At the hearing, Assembly Ways and Means Chair Helene Weinstein asked Cuomo’s acting tax commissioner, Nonie Manion, if she could provide evidence that the wealthy are actually leaving the state as a result of the tax changes. 

“Have we seen an actual decrease in the number of high-income taxpayers since the federal tax law was passed?” Weinstein asked.

“We can’t really say for sure,” Manion answered. “We’ve heard some anecdotal information that people are leaving.”

Manion says she’ll know more for certain in April, when the full tax returns are filed.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.