Governor Paterson’s Puzzling Poor Performance

c paterson Governor Paterson’s Puzzling Poor PerformanceI had high hopes for David Paterson when he became governor, but I have to admit I’ve pretty much given up on him. I was appalled by the way he treated Caroline Kennedy when she expressed interest in New York’s vacant Senate seat: Hey Governor, a simple no would have sufficed.  Is it really a good idea to humiliate and then badmouth a public service-minded citizen who has done nothing but good works for her entire life? The disorganization and confusion out of Albany could not be coming at a worse time.

Last week New York state began to back away from its important and historic participation in the agreement among the northeastern states to reduce greenhouse gasses. As New York Times’ reporter Danny Hakim wrote March 5:

“At the urging of the energy industry, Gov. David A Paterson has agreed to reconsider a key rule New York adopted as part of a 10-state pact aimed at reducing the threat of global warming by cutting power plant emissions. Gov. David A. Paterson may alter regulations in which utilities buy or trade allowances to cover carbon dioxide emissions. Mr. Paterson appeared to overrule the State Department of Environmental Conservation in making the move, which would reopen state regulations to provide power plants leeway to release greater amounts of emissions at no additional cost. Administration officials said the governor was concerned the rule might unfairly burden the energy industry.”

While this is an absolutely inexplicable political move, it is also evidence of a poor understanding of the grave threat posed by global warming. It also means that unlike President Obama, Governor Paterson does not understand the connection of environmental protection to economic growth. Or perhaps he understands the connection, but like the most recent President Bush, has decided to pander to the energy industry for campaign contributions. Of course, the day after the Times’ story, Erik Engquist reported in Craine’s New York Business that the Governor has made no decision on the issue. According to Engquist’s story: “On Friday his [Paterson’s] office sought to allay concerns. ‘We haven’t made any changes yet, and we haven’t even suggested any,’ said spokesman Morgan Hook. ‘The governor made a commitment to look at the regulations again if it’s determined that there’s a need to do so.’”

There is a disturbing pattern here in the clumsy way Governor Paterson approaches policy issues.  Perhaps his long years of service in the legislature has been poor preparation for the responsibilities of executive office. A state senator in the political minority can reconsider all the policy he wants to reconsider and it is no big deal. A governor has the power to rewrite the rules, and therefore when a governor says he is going to reconsider a rule, it is not a purely academic exercise—it means the policy might actually change.

Given the importance, visibility and symbolic nature of this issue, I truly cannot understand why the governor has re-opened it. Didn’t someone on his staff mention that he would expose himself to an onslaught of political attack from the environmental community? Didn’t anyone mention to him that the policy action on global warming has now shifted to Washington DC, where a national cap and trade system of carbon limits and fees (a form of carbon tax) has already been proposed by our new President? In all likelihood, New York’s rules will be supplanted by national policy.  This was not an issue Paterson needed to take on. Even if he was inclined to pander to the energy industry, he could have easily said he was waiting to see what the federal government would do.

As the most recent Marist poll reports, the broad public has lost confidence in the governor. Paterson’s approval rating of 26% is the lowest for any governor since the Marist poll began state-wide surveying almost 30 years ago.  

While elected officials often come back from poor poll results, the good will and political support that Governor Paterson brought with him into office has now evaporated. Given his approach to the global warming issue, and his handling of Caroline Kennedy’s halting Senate bid, it is easy to see why.  What I find so puzzling is that David Paterson is a bright, talented and dedicated public servant. The state and nation are in the midst of the deepest financial crisis of our lifetime. We need a governor capable of rising to the occasion. That is not what we are getting.