(City Journal) -- Former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who died Thursday, is being remembered as a big-spending liberal Democrat—and he certainly did plenty to earn that reputation. During his three terms between 1983 and 1995, Cuomo significantly expanded the state government’s payroll, doubled the size of the state’s budget, and more than doubled the state’s debt. Yet Cuomo’s record can’t be reduced to tax, spend, and tax some more. In fact, even as he was gaining national acclaim among Democrats for his attacks on the fiscal policies of President Ronald Reagan, Cuomo also approved personal income tax cuts that were downright Reaganesque.
The personal income tax has long been New York’s main state revenue source, and the double-digit tax rates imposed in the 1960s and early 1970s under Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller struck a huge blow to the state’s economic competitiveness. Democratic Governor Hugh Carey, under whom Cuomo served as lieutenant governor from 1979 to 1983, began to undo the damage by slashing the state’s top income tax rate to 10 percent from its 15.35 percent Rockefeller-era reform. Cuomo’s third budget, presented in 1985, called for $1.2 billion in new income tax cuts, which included a further reduction in the top rate, to 9 percent from 10 percent. “This will enhance our business environment by helping us attract and retain middle-level managers,” Cuomo said. Prodded by state Senate Republicans, he enlarged the package to include a reduction in New York’s tax on “unearned” income, including capital gains. The governor pronounced himself “very pleased” with the result. More was soon to come.