When Governor David Paterson boldly proposed to cut $1 billion from the State budget this year by slashing funding for Medicaid, higher education, aid to local governments and member items, it seemed as if Paterson had finally returned from his honeymoon to face a Spitzer-like battle with the Legislature. Call him the accidental governor no longer, because there is nothing accidental about Paterson’s plan to reform the state’s finances. It is a calculated strategy, which demonstrates a political savvy far greater than the wealth of knowledge accumulated after just six months as governor.
Clashing with lawmakers over funding in an election year is usually a strategy for defeat. However, Paterson has already seen signs his proposed cuts are receiving broad support among the public even though they are being mightily assailed by special interest groups and unions who once sang his praises. Since announcing his plan, a survey conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute found the governor’s approval rating rose from 56 percent to 64 percent. However, maybe it is a win-win for both Paterson and the Legislature.
Proposing massive spending cuts shows the public Paterson is taking the initiative to curb out-of-control spending and put our state’s bloated budget on a much-needed diet. And the Legislature can win points fighting the cuts, restoring funding, but ultimately agreeing to a lesser reduction in spending which still shows the public a fiscal restraint they have routinely been criticized for failing to exhibit. However, a danger arises when people are used as pawns in a political game, because unlike in chess, sacrifices matter.
The biggest reduction in Paterson’s plan comes from a $506 million cut in Medicaid spending which has angered the state’s powerful hospital lobby and healthcare unions. Coming under attack from special interest groups may not publicly harm Paterson. But because Medicaid cuts coincide with an unprecedented growth in the population of older adults it will be interesting to see whether seniors who comprise a large portion of the electorate adhere to their historical tendencies for financial austerity and side with the governor or embrace new alliances among the healthcare community and oppose the cuts.
Paterson has also proposed cutting $250 million in state aid to local governments which many fear could force cities and towns reliant on state aid to either cut more services or raise taxes. Using spending cuts as a means to avoid tax hikes may be popular statewide, but further reduced state assistance will face very strong opposition in communities where $600 million in administrative cuts to state agency spending and a hiring freeze have already led to a lack of public sector jobs.
In a politically astute decision, Paterson opted to leave education funding untouched, actually increasing state education aid by a record $2 billion. Already waging a war against the powerful teacher’s unions over his property tax cap, which education advocates oppose because it may force school districts to reduce their budgets, Paterson was smart not to further incite their wrath by putting them on the chopping block.
Arguably, the most popular but politically controversial aspect of Paterson’s budget plan is his call to reduce member items for legislators by $100 million. Cutting funding for local programs and groups is a tough pill to swallow in an election year, particularly for legislators who have to go back to their districts and say the money they promised is not there anymore. Better known as pork projects, member items are viewed with great disdain by the general public and fiscal watchdogs, but with equal appreciation by those local groups on the receiving end. While Paterson will be hailed for taking steps to restrain spending, legislators will be cast as unwilling to part with their precious member items even for what is perceived as the greater financial good of the state.
By offering legislators a billion dollar menu of possible cuts, but saying he would accept a smaller package of $600 million, Paterson has given legislators either political coverage or enough rope to hang themselves in an election year. The debate will rage on concerning whether these cuts are unavoidable or just an unnecessary means to an end. But regardless of what final decisions come down from Albany, Paterson has proved his political merit and won over public support, and certainly not by “accident.”
NEWS & NOTES: Democratic incumbent State Senator Shirley Huntley launched her re-election campaign for the 10th Senate District in Queens. After defeating then incumbent Senator Aida Smith in the Democratic Primary of 2006, Huntley went on to win the general election and is now beginning the defense of her seat. Huntley has already received the endorsements of the Working Families Party, United Federation of Teachers, Local 237 Teamsters, Local 1199 SEIU, and others.
The endorsement of long-time Democratic Assemblymember Nettie Mayersohn was recently withdrawn by the Stonewall Democratic Club which represents many members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender (LGBC) communities. However, without an opponent, the un-endorsement will not do any damage to Mayersohn. What is interesting to note is that Mayersohn has often been praised for the support she has shown the LGBT community.