The way things are going in Albany, Paterson would be doing himself
and the rest of the state a large favor if he were to follow his
neighbor’s example. Only by placing himself out of contention can
Paterson take the difficult measures needed to balance the state budget.
Last week the governor called the Legislature into special session
to act on his plan to reduce the $3.2 billion hole in the budget for
the current fiscal year, which ends on March 31, 2010. He offered a
plan to shave $5 billion off next year’s deficit, which only cuts that
gap in half. Looming on the horizon, according to the State Budget
Office, is a deficit of $14.8 billion in 2011-2012, and $19.5 billion
for the fiscal year 2012-2013.
The economic news indicates a slow recovery for the state’s
treasury. In the first quarter of this year, wages earned by New
Yorkers declined by 15 percent, the largest drop ever recorded. Since
most tax revenues are based on income, state coffers won’t be
replenished any time soon. Last year the governor teamed up with his
legislative colleagues to enact a series of cuts and introduced a new
collection of fiscal gimmicks to plug the budget hole. These gimmicks
included transferring funds from the Short Term Investment Pool to the
general fund, and delaying STAR payments. All of these measures only
stave off the inevitable.
Tax revenues are not going to rise anytime soon. The Obama stimulus
plan does not have enough funding to close the state’s gap. It will be
a couple of rough budget years for every community in this state. Who
will give us the bad news and lead us away from the abyss? Not a weak
governor begging for our votes.
The ongoing shenanigans in the state Legislature demonstrate amply
that no one there is willing to play the part of the grownup. The
Assembly and Senate have such high re-election rates based on a simple
but ultimately corrupting bargain. In every Senate and Assembly
district the voters and their representatives live by a simple rule:
You bring home the bacon, and we’ll send you back for more.
It’s not that our elected representatives aren’t good and decent
people, it’s that we punish them if they act like adults. It doesn’t
seem to matter who we send to Albany. Hobby farmer, hot shot lawyer,
politician, piano player—it all ends up the same. We reward them for
deceiving us, and then we complain.
The solution has to come from the governor’s mansion. A governor
hurt as badly as Paterson can’t secure the state’s fiscal future and
court the public’s approval at the same time. This week Paterson
launched a charm offensive, courting voters by explaining the tough
choices ahead and how he intends to deal with them. His
not-quite-official campaign for a new term has an appealing theme: I’ll
tell you the bad news, and you’ll be happier for it.
His campaign is all but certain to fail. Paterson can’t be blamed
for trying to hang on to his job. Clearly the mess we’re in is not his
fault. He didn’t cause the collapse on Wall Street, which dried up
billions in tax revenues and exacerbated the deficit. He didn’t create
the expectations of consistent growth in spending that agencies in
Albany and local governments from Long Island to Lackawanna hold as an
article of faith. And he certainly didn’t encourage Eliot Spitzer, the
man who handed him the keys to the Titanic, to be so careless with his
It’s clearly not fair to Gov. Paterson, but life in politics rarely
is. He didn’t ask for the job the first time around, and now that he
wants our vote, chances are slim to none that he’ll get it.
The only hope he has of salvaging his reputation is to govern as a
statesman, not a politician. If he renounces the 2010 race, he takes on
the role of an interim CEO. In many companies an interim person comes
in and takes the hit for necessary changes while the board of directors
searches for a new long-term leader. Once the crisis has passed, the
interim moves on and the new regime takes over, publicly lamenting the
tough-love steps taken, but quietly grateful that someone else has done
the heavy lifting.
If he takes the high road and puts governing above politics, New
Yorkers will owe David Paterson a lasting debt. If he sticks around,
we’ll find ourselves owing a whole lot more.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in The New Times.