The Last (Good) Man Standing

Perhaps the template for Mr. Ravitch’s vision of civic engagement, and the challenges that come with it today, is the commission he led in 2008 to bring new revenue streams to the M.T.A. Mr. Ravitch brought in a collection of business and other leaders—Denis Hughes of New York’s AFL-CIO, the chairman of Con Edison, Kevin Burke, to name a few—with the hope of agreeing on a workable plan that would go through the Legislature without tremendous opposition.

But the plan, which called for bridge tolls along the East River and a new payroll tax, got stuck in the mud of state politics, and was delayed for months amid wrangling in the State Senate. Ultimately, after months of fighting in the Senate, a pared-back version of the plan was passed, giving the M.T.A. enough money for two of the five years it sought (revenues have since fallen short of projections).
“He ended up not really fixing the operating- or the capital-budget problems that the M.T.A. faces,” said Bob Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association. “But are we much better off than we would have been? Absolutely. It gives us close to $2 billion in new revenues”
His latest task, and the one soon to garner attention once it is released this week, is to convince the Legislature and governor to reshape the way the state plans fiscally—to establish long-term stability and order to its checkbook. The situation is indeed dire: There is a $9 billion gap this year, an election year, and larger gaps are projected for next year.

Mr. Ravitch has spent the past few months trying to prepare everyone he can for this next fight—to educate the state’s leaders and legislators about the need for structural reform. Expenses and benefits payments rise faster than revenues, and in a recession that seems bound to linger, that spells catastrophe, with cuts (or new taxes) likely to be needed every year.

He dines with elected officials, meets with labor and business executives to hammer the point home. This week he is unveiling his solution, a five-year fiscal plan that would put in place new controls on its budgeting (the city did this in the 1970s) to keep costs in control.
The plan, according to people familiar with it, would trade short-term borrowing in exchange for long-term controls. This of course will open the door for criticism about continued borrowing and the larger hole it will inevitably create; still, it is hard to see how the paralyzed Legislature, particularly the State Senate, could find agreement anytime soon on how to fill the $9 billion gap.

Just how much influence Mr. Ravitch will have in the coming months depends in large part on Mr. Paterson, and to what extent he is willing to unleash Mr. Ravitch. Thus far, Mr. Paterson seems to have left him in a policy role akin to the well-respected leader of a think tank—allowing him to work on budget issues, but not giving him the tools to implement changes. In terms of budget discussions, his role is unclear.

For instance, when Mr. Ravitch was looking to meet with an organization affected by the state budget earlier this year, the governor’s office called the organization to give a disclaimer. “They said, ‘If you’re going to meet with Dick Ravitch, he does not speak for us,’” an organization official who discussed the issue with the governor’s office said. (In a statement for this article, Marissa Shorenstein, a spokeswoman for the governor, said thatMr. Paterson “appreciates Lieutenant Governor Ravitch’s diligent work preparing a plan to help our state government achieve long-term structural budget balance. His proposals deserve due consideration as we move forward toward the final Enacted Budget.” Mr. Ravitch declined to be interviewed, as his fiscal plan was being finalized.)

While some lawmakers, including Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, have called for Mr. Ravitch to take the lead in budget negotiations, others, including State Senators Eric Adams and Carl Kruger, have balked at the concept.

It is the Senate that poses Mr. Ravitch’s greatest challenge, as the chamber, with a slim and poorly unified Democratic majority, has been a ground zero of deadlock on any difficult vote in the past year. With a few influential senators denying the large size of deficits and pushing a do-it-next-year mentality, the prevailing attitude in the chamber is at odds with Mr. Ravitch.

This, he has said, leaves him conflicted. “I’m actually a great believer in Bill Buckley’s view that I’d rather be governed by the first hundred names in the Boston phone book than all the professors at Harvard,” he told a forum at N.Y.U. in October. “I nonetheless think it could be argued that the Senate has extended that principle a little beyond reasonableness. And I can only say that if you believe in democracy, my job is to work with them and to try to persuade them, and I have not given up yet.”

ebrown@observer.com

More from Eliot Brown: Ravitch Offers Albany a Trade: New Budget Limits for Less Pain this Year >