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New York already has a financial transaction tax on the books — it's time to start collecting it

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Recently re-elected Governor Andrew Cuomo likes to complain that he's "a progressive Democrat who's broke." Here's a simple way to raise millions of dollars and make the economy safer at the same time: a small tax on financial transactions. Politically impossible? Not in New York, where Governor Cuomo could lead the way to reinstate New York's Stock Transfer Tax, which remains on the books but currently is not collected.

A modest tax on financial transactions would raise revenue while slowing down the frenetic short-term trading that could drive us straight into another financial crisis. Gridlock at the federal level will make congressional action tricky. New York State has had a financial transaction tax-specifically a stock transfer tax-- on the books since 1906, but since 1981 has instantly rebates all of the money.  It's time to start collecting.

The case for a Financial Transaction Tax

The idea for a financial transaction tax has been around for since John Maynard Keynes's General Theory. The basic argument is that a small fee would be trivial for long-term investors, and only deter the activities of socially useless high-turnover speculators. The idea began to gain traction in the late 70s and 80s with the rapid growth of the financial sector. In 1989, Lawrence Summers and Victoria Summers proposed a U.S. Securities Transfer Excise Tax, arguing that it could raise some $10 billion annually. Recently, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has supported a financial transaction tax as well. A metastudy by Neil McCulloch and Grazia Pacillo finds that a Tobin Tax (a type of FTT) would be "feasible and, if appropriately designed, could make a significant contribution to revenue without causing major distortions."

From 1914 to 1966, the United States levied a 0.02 percent tax on sales and transfers of stock. Federally, Speaker Jim Wright pushed for a renewed tax in 1987, proposing a fee of 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent on the buyer and seller of each securities transaction, highlighting the tax's progressive aspects. More recently, the "Wall Street Trading and Speculators Tax Act" was proposed by Senators Harkin and DeFazio, which would assess a tax of 0.03 percent on trades of stocks, bonds, futures, options, swaps, and credit-default swaps, and would generate $352 billion over 10 years.

Such a tax would not be unprecedented. On May 6th, 2014, ten European nations issued a joint statement that a financial tax will begin in 2016 as a means to reduce speculation and raise revenue. The initial tax will focus on the trading of stocks and some derivatives, even though the initial proposal included taxing most financial products. The European Commission estimates that a broad tax could raise $39 billion (31 billion EUR) in annual revenues.

New York's Stock Transfer Tax

Capital intermediation is an important and integral part of the modern economy. However, rapid deregulation has allowed it to become poisoned by rent-seeking and hyperactive trading while exacerbating rising inequality. A modest tax on financial transactions could reduce the propensity for systemic risk, while providing much-needed money to revenue-starved governments. However, it's unlikely that such a tax can be passed at the federal level, given the partisan climate.  That's why New York's Stock Transfer Tax is such an important opportunity.

There was a Stock Transfer Tax in place in New York from 1905-1981. Revenue from the tax was split between the city and state (in the 1960s the full revenue reverted entirely to New York City). Beginning October 1, 1979, 30% of the tax was rebated to the investor, which was increased to 60% in 1980 and then the full value of the tax in 1981 Because of this quirk in its phase-out, the STT was never repealed. Instead, 100 percent of the revenue is rebated to the trader. Because the tax remains on the books, politically putting the tax in place would not require passage by the legislature of a new tax, but instead the reduction of the rebate, whether by 100% or some smaller percentile.

Governor Cuomo included a repeal of the tax in his Executive Budget (S. 6359), by calling for a full repeal of the tax due to its "unnecessary administrative work for the financial services industry as well as for the Department of Taxation and Finance," (along with a separate proposal by the Governor to repeal the bank tax). This followed a recommendation by his Solomon/ McCall Commission to repeal ‘nuisance taxes' like the STT. Assemblyman Phil Steck proposed a bill (A. 8410) to reduce the rebate and re-start collection of 40% of the nominally-collected tax. The threat of a final repeal of the tax prompted action from a variety of stakeholders, including a call by Jeffrey Sachs for a reinstatement of collection. The final enacted budget bill (S. 6359) did not include a repeal of the tax; it remains on the books as a fully-rebated tax.

New York could serve as a pilot program for an eventual national tax. A modest tax on stock transactions would raise millions annually, which could be used to offset any minimal job loss. If the revenue was directed toward creating public jobs and infrastructure, New York could reduce the twin risks of climate change and rampant economic inequality at the same time.

Instead of repealing the tax, Governor Cuomo should re-start collection and use the revenues to stimulate equitable economic growth.

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