Last week, Governor David Paterson announced his plans to address New York’s growing budget gap by slashing $5.2 billion in spending. Now the game of chicken begins. However, it is New Yorkers, facing the highest taxes in the nation, a growing budget deficit and the collapse of our cash cow, Wall Street, who will be caught in the collision if the emergency session of the Legislature fails to compromise on a budget reduction package.
Throughout over two decades of service in the State Legislature, Paterson compiled a voting record that many Republicans and most conservatives derided as too liberal, left of center even within the Democratic Conference. Now, cast in the State’s top spot, Paterson has moved himself decisively toward the center, particularly on issues of finance. Some may perceive it as a calculated political maneuver. That may be so, but good politics is not mutually exclusive of good government. He recognizes that New York has a problem and he is offering up solutions to fix it. There are many words you can use to spin his actions, but if I had to choose one, it would be commendable.
Paterson has proposed cutting $2 billion in spending from the current fiscal year’s budget, followed by another $3.2 billion in fiscal years 2009-2010. He has called for a reduction in the growth rate of education funding from 9 percent down to 5 percent and a reduction in the Medicaid growth rate from 2 percent to 1 percent. His plan also provides no reduction in the workforce and no new taxes. The increase in tuition for the City and State Universities (SUNY and CUNY) still keeps both systems within the competitive range of other states schools. It is certainly not the best news, but things could be far worse; and they easily will be if the budget deficit is not dealt with immediately.
But here is the problem - will the Legislature accept his challenge and work with him to reduce spending to a manageable level. If not, the cuts he is currently proposing will seem mild compared to the slash and burn the state may be forced into if economic conditions continue to deteriorate. You may have thought the election ended on November 4, but apparently it is just beginning if you believe some of the rhetoric coming out of Albany.
Senate Republicans, who recently lost control of their sole remaining vestige of power in the state, have been particularly critical of the governor’s plans and appear to be using his painful cuts to jump-start their 2010 campaigns. Dean Skelos, Majority Leader of the State Senate, could use the cuts as an opportunity to lay the blame strictly at the feet of the Democrats and play obstructionist with his few remaining days in the majority.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has publicly praised the Governor’s proposal, and appears willing to work toward a compromise, but he too neglected to offer his own plan to scale back spending. Even if Silver gets his conference to agree to vote on Paterson’s budget, the Senate, still under Republican control, remains a stumbling block in a political chess game with taxpayers sacrificed as insignificant pawns.
Following the 2010 statewide elections, where all Assembly and Senate seats are up for grabs, as is the governor’s office, the decennial census takes place, after which legislative districts are redrawn by the party in power. If Democrats retain control of both chambers of the Legislature they set the lines, but if Republicans can win back the Senate, they will hold the power. The stakes could not be higher, and the budget woes could not provide a better campaign kickoff for Senate Republicans eager for a return to the political spotlight. By preventing Paterson from addressing the budget gap while shifting responsibility for spending and service cuts to the Democrats, the Republicans will have given themselves a solid platform from which to campaign.
Webster’s Dictionary defines lead as, “To show the way or to direct the course by going before.” That is exactly what David Paterson is doing and he is doing it during the most difficult of times. The question remains, however, will the other “leaders” of our state have the courage to follow?
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