No Country For Red Men

In 2011 we have new legislators, a new Cuomo, and the same old fight. Alas, the brief recurring respite Indian Country has between Election Day and Inauguration Day every few years is over, and the fight begins again.

Cuomo, Part Deux, presents the Executive Budget for NYS

Governor Cuomo contributed another brief chapter in dealing with what for centuries has been known as the “Indian Problem.” Frustrated by the rise in the Indian tobacco trade on tribal territories within New York and the state’s inability to collect taxes on this increasingly profitable enterprise, Cuomo took action and attempted to force tax collection on reservation tobacco sales—and ran into a brick wall of defiance.

No, you didn’t miss something in the first 100 days of Andrew Cuomo’s tenure. This was the 1990s under Gov. Cuomo of the Mario persuasion. But the former governor’s son has already taken his first step toward renewing this practice, by including $130 million presumptive tax dollars from taxes on Indian cigarettes in this year’s budget. Never mind the fact he is relying on reports from a department that acknowledges that 70 percent of what would be considered “bootleg” cigarettes—cigarettes purchased outside of, but consumed within, New York State—come from states bordering New York and Canada. The capriciousness of the $130 million estimate is even more suspect considering that “expert” testimony at various hearings over the years have placed the number anywhere between $65 million and $1.6 billion.

No matter how the state arrives at its figures, by inserting any number into the budget Andrew Cuomo has picked up where his father, and several others, left off.

In the waning days of Mario Cuomo’s administration, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens delivered the court’s 1994 decision in a case called Milhem Attea & Bros., granting individual states the right to collect taxes on cigarettes sold to non-natives on reservation territory throughout the United States. With the so-called collection authority in place from the highest court in our land, the issue of enforcement was left to the individual states to pursue. This is where it got ugly.

After an unsuccessful attempt to force Indian tobacco retailers to open their books and provide sales figures and tax revenue to New York, the state established a coupon system whereby taxes would be applied at the wholesale level and collected in advance. Trying to coordinate this effort between manufacturers, wholesalers and individual tribal retailers and the violent reaction it stirred in Indian Country—the Seneca Nation in particular—led the governor to institute a policy of forbearance. Forbearance is another way of saying “even though I think I’m right, it’s the next guy’s problem.” The issue was essentially too complex and heated to pursue, so Cuomo punted and passed the buck to the following administration.

CLICK HERE TO READ PRESS COVER STORY ABOUT CIGARETTE TAX DISPUTE BETWEEN U.S. AND INDIAN COUNTRY

Gov. George Pataki took up the fight during his first term in office, and was met with amplified defiance from Seneca that set the new administration back on its heels. Pataki too went “four and out” and punted.

Insert “Gov. Eliot Spitzer” and “Gov. David Paterson” into the paragraph above as they both attempted to traverse this well-worn path with no success. Every governor since Mario Cuomo, once learning the nuance of policy as it relates to tribal land and sovereign rights, winds up hiding behind the policy of forbearance. Last year state Sens. Craig Johnson (gone), Carl Kruger (indicted), Pedro Espada (indicted), and Assembs. Richard Brodsky (gone) and Michael Benjamin (gone) shook their fists at hearings and press conferences urging Paterson to step up to the plate and take on New York’s tribes.

But that was so 2010. In 2011 we have new legislators, a new Cuomo, and the same old fight. Alas, the brief recurring respite Indian Country has between Election Day and Inauguration Day every few years is over, and the fight begins again. My father is fond of the phrase “every 100 years, all new people.” The more you think about that phrase the more freeing, or paralyzing, it is. For Indians it’s more like “every 10 years, all new politicians.”

I bring this up now because Andrew Cuomo is by all accounts an extremely bright guy with a long memory; a bright guy who undoubtedly understands the intricate and delicate relationship with tribal nations in New York better than any governor that came before him, his father included. He has the benefit of an institutional knowledge his father had to acquire on the job and the added bonus of witnessing each successive governor fail with respect to imposing taxes on cigarettes sold on reservation land.

Given these circumstances, quietly inserting $130 million in tax dollars is more than a warning shot. It marks the beginning of yet another skirmish in a long, tiresome and 400-year war against the indigenous people of this nation.

Well played, Mr. Jacobs

"Is this thing on? Good. David... You're fired."

UPDATE: Jay Jacobs and New York State Democrats It looks as though Jay Jacobs won’t have to go into hiding this summer after all. It’s been quite the week for the New York Democratic leader who not only gets to smoothly maneuver his man Andrew Cuomo into the race for governor, but Harold Ford has also indicated that he won’t run a primary against Kirsten Gillibrand. What a difference a week makes.

Jay Jacobs Jacobs has managed to stay just far enough away from Gov. Paterson’s radioactive energy that his bargaining power is fully intact. He was able to shelter his current stable of statewide office-holders from the Paterson implosion by being the only representative at the governor’s short-lived campaign kickoff at Hofstra University.

Paterson’s spectacular ongoing fall has yet to find bottom, which under normal circumstances should spell disaster for the party in power. But by choosing to go it alone, Paterson belongs to no one and therefore owns his decline. Coalescing power in the Democratic Party to fight angry conservatives—who have the upper hand in the polls at the moment—is the key to retaining several statewide seats. Settling these disputes now allows Jacobs to bolster Congressional races for incumbents such as Steve Israel and Tim Bishop, who may come under fire from we-smell-blood-in-the-water Republicans nationally.

The strange part of this year, however, might be the seats that either nobody is looking at (NYS Comptroller) or that leaders take for granted (Attorney General). Nevertheless, in a year when anything goes and nothing is what it seems, Jacobs has made his life immeasurably easier by allowing Paterson to fall on his own sword and maneuvering Harold Ford out of the race. Your move, Republicans.

Governor David Paterson

Something very interesting is happening in Albany.

 David Paterson, the happenstance governor of New York, is finding his footing, getting comfortable in a battle-ready stance and throwing jabs at the legislative body he presides over. And he’s connecting with greater frequency. All of the pundits who have been scoffing out loud at the possibility of David Paterson returning to office next year should sit up and take notice.

 Until this point many have considered Paterson a seat warmer for Andrew Cuomo. His inability to read staff briefings and his refusal to learn braille is a source of constant mockery. Even Rupert Murdoch pointed to Paterson’s impaired vision as a primary reason he is unfit to govern the state. The legislature routinely obstructs his initiatives or ignores him completely. Hell, the President of the United States took time out of his schedule to tell him to step aside next year.

 But an objective look at what has transpired over the past couple of months tells a slightly different story than what the pundits are saying.

 Since being sworn in as Governor, Paterson has gone on a crusade to warn the public that New York State’s finances were spiraling out of control and headed for a wall. His barrage of warnings went virtually unheeded and quickly became verbal wallpaper in the media and in political circles. When NYS Comptroller Tom DiNapoli finally put a figure to the deficit and joined Paterson in a chorus of warnings, the concern grew ever more palpable among New Yorkers while the members of the Assembly and Senate rearranged deck chairs on the Titanic.

 An internal coup during the summer months paralyzed the government and placed a spotlight on their remarkable dysfunction.  This is when an almost imperceptible shift in Paterson’s favor occurred. When Paterson threatened to break the deadlock by appointing a Lieutenant Governor he was ridiculed and brought to court by the legislature. Quietly, a couple of months and appellate court decision later, the governor got his man.

More of a Bad Ass Than We Thought?

Over the past few months the deficit has grown larger while the legislators ignored the governor’s request to get back to work forcing Paterson to once again to take matters into his own hands. He threatened to expand executive authority and begin slashing budgets across the board and forced the legislature back to the table. Say what you will about our beleaguered governor, he is determined to stand up to anyone in his way.

 Some of the insider rap on Paterson may well be true, however. The administration itself is considered by many to be highly disorganized and the governor is said to be increasingly paranoid given how many people are angling to fill his chair. But as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not watching you. Despite some tiny victories, his approval ratings have gone into freefall and talk of his replacement has gained serious momentum. But if the recent local elections are an indication of anything, it is simply that anything can happen. The anti-incumbent wave of emotion may continue unmitigated through next year and send several sitting legislators to the private sector.

The ultimate twist of fate would be if the voters leave Paterson right where he is to captain this ship regardless of what the polls say today.

 Stranger things have happened.