Paterson Picks a Good Fight to Lose

As part of his crusade to reform the state’s finances, Governor David Paterson outlined a proposal yesterday to cut an additional $1 billion from this year’s budget, plus $1.6 billion next year. Doing so put him at odds with fellow Democrats, and it’s unlikely to turn into a legislative coup for the governor. How it will play politically, however, is a different story.

The governor’s first dramatic warnings about the state budget, which included a rare televised speech and a trip to Washington, were met with some skepticism from state Democrats, and a series of proposals for reducing the budget by $1.2 billion through reduced spending and a hiring freeze drew little support. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver will, with his conference, most likely prevent the passage of the cuts while pushing for a tax increase on the wealthy. (The State Senate also has to approve.)

The public relations war is another story.

“I think public opinion is with him on this,” said Kathy Wylde, president of a business group, The Partnership for New York City. “Most people recognize New York is out of control on spending. I think he has a lot of support.”

Going head-to-head with Democratic state lawmakers is a counterintuitive strategy for success in the capital, at least on the heels of Eliot Spitzer. But Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf thinks Paterson has hit on the right issue if he’s looking for public support.

“Spitzer’s attacks were seen as gratuitous. David Paterson is seen to be more fighting for the people,” Sheinkopf said.

In fighting the cuts, Assembly Democrats have been put in the role of tax-hiker.

“It’s draconian and unnecessary,” said Assemblyman Jim Brennan of the governor’s proposed cuts. “A tax increase of $3 to $3.5 billion would be comparable to the one we did five years ago, and make these kinds of cuts unnecessary.” Brennan added, “I think he’s making a mistake.”

Some cuts to state spending are definitely needed, said Assemblyman Richard Brodsky of Westchester, but they should be accompanied by a millionaire’s tax. “It makes no sense to ask parents of CUNY and SUNY students to pay more to get less from the government, while the families that send kids to Dalton and Harvard aren’t affected,” he said.

Even Paterson’s supporters are skeptical that he can push the plan into law. Wylde, of the Partnership, said that while Paterson’s spending cuts are popular statewide, there is very real resistance to them in communities where less public money is essentially reduced the few remaining employment opportunities. “Upstate in particular is dependent on government jobs,” she said.

Arnold Linhardt, a Democratic political consultant in White Plains, asked rhetorically, “In the end, do you think both houses are going to pass what the governor said?” He answered himself: “It’s an election year for the legislature, so, I can’t even see the Republicans cutting that deep into programs.”

But there are benefits, especially for a politician who resents being called the “accidental governor” and is hoping to win re-election in 2010.

“The best thing that can happen to him is anybody in Albany takes him on,” said Sheinkopf. “The public will rise up and say ‘This is a good man.’”

Paterson Picks a Good Fight to Lose