Silver vs. Spitzer? Don’t Spoil the Party

The last thing New York’s Democrats need right now is a fight among themselves. For the first time in 12 years, they control the Governor’s office. After more than a decade spent as critics, Democrats are now firmly in charge of state politics.

Prosperity, however, hasn’t come without cost. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver will soon have to decide whether or not to go to war with his fellow Democrat, Governor Eliot Spitzer, over the appointment of a new State Comptroller.

Mr. Silver, a canny politician, would be well advised to avoid this battle. He had hoped a panel of three former comptrollers would recommend at least one of several Assembly Democrats as a finalist for the job, which became vacant when Alan Hevesi resigned late last year. The panel, however, winnowed the field of more than a dozen wannabes down to three—none of them from Mr. Silver’s delegation.

Mr. Silver is a key player in this scenario because the comptroller vacancy will be filled by a vote of the full State Legislature. Mr. Silver controls the votes of 107 Assembly Democrats. The Assembly Democratic delegation has enough votes to decide who will take Mr. Hevesi’s place.

Mr. Silver, then, is the man to see. He and Mr. Spitzer agreed on the winnowing-down process after more than a dozen people, including several members of Mr. Silver’s caucus, declared their interest in becoming comptroller—a job which, as the sole trustee for the state’s $100 billion in pension funds, comes with an abundance of responsibility.

The three former comptrollers decided, however, to endorse three candidates: William J. Mulrow, an investment banker and former candidate for the post; Howard S. Weitzman, the Nassau County Comptroller; and Martha E. Stark, New York City’s Finance Commissioner. All are qualified candidates familiar with the world of public finance. But none is a Democratic member of the New York Assembly.

Mr. Silver is said to be disappointed. That’s putting it mildly. His fellow Democrats are said to be infuriated. That’s a mild characterization, too. The Speaker is under great pressure from his members to ignore the panel’s recommendations by supporting one of his colleagues.

By doing so, Mr. Silver would put himself at odds with Governor Spitzer, the overwhelming winner in last year’s gubernatorial election, who still is enjoying his political honeymoon. Mr. Spitzer has lots of political capital and a statewide reputation. Mr. Silver doesn’t have that kind of clout.

If he is wise—and one doesn’t get to be Speaker without a certain degree of political wisdom—Mr. Silver would avoid getting backed into a corner on this issue. He’d acknowledge that the three candidates all have superb qualifications, and that any one of them would make a fine State Comptroller.

Then, in the best tradition of New York politics, he’d cut his deal and take a vote.

It isn’t pretty. But did anybody ever think this process would be a work of art?

The Bloomberg Dividend

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s politically unpopular decision to raise property taxes in the early years of his administration is now yielding dividends. Last week, he announced that the city has a surplus of almost $4 billion, thanks to tax revenues for the current fiscal year coming in $2 billion higher than expected.

The surplus is just part of an overall rosy picture: Wages in the city have risen each year since 2002; Wall Street bonuses hit a record of $25 billion in 2006; vacancy rates in office towers are plunging; and hotels are doing brisk business.

Beneath the glowing headlines, however, lurks the hard truth that the city is hardly out of the woods economically, and the Mayor has wisely tempered his policies with a good dose of moderation.

For example, as the $3.9 billion surplus is rolled over into next year’s $57.1 billion budget, the Mayor plans to set aside $1.4 billion to reduce future deficits and allocate $500 million toward health benefits for retired city workers. Those are prudent—and necessary—moves, and they take some of the risk away from the Mayor’s new $750 million property-tax cut.

But why not use even more of the surplus to pay down the city’s long-term debt? New York will be gaining 200,000 people in the next five years, at the same time that burgeoning Medicaid and pension plans for city workers will cost billions. Moreover, as the Mayor pointed out, the current surplus was largely the result of property-transfer taxes, which depend on a booming real-estate market. Indeed, the twin foundations of the flush treasury are the real-estate market and Wall Street, both of which are prey to unpredictable fluctuations and long-term downturns. With New York facing projected annual budget deficits of $2.6 billion in fiscal 2009 and $3.7 billion in 2010, along with an expected softening of the housing market, an excess of caution is indicated.

Just six years after enduring the worst terrorist attack in world history, a subsequent crippling recession and several years of neglect by Washington, D.C., and Albany, New Yorkers have a lot to be thrilled about. But now is the time to take the short-term gains and invest them in the city’s long-term future.

Stewart Airport Cleared for Take-Off

If you had the unfortunate experience of traveling via LaGuardia, Kennedy or Newark airports during the recent holiday period, you don’t need anyone to tell you how atrocious the crowding and delays have become at our three area airports. With traffic of over 100 million passengers in 2006, it’s understandable that service and efficiency would struggle to keep up with demand. And so it’s good news indeed that the Port Authority has announced plans to transform Stewart International Airport in Ulster County into the region’s fourth major airport.

The potential is there: Stewart is just 60 miles north of Manhattan, reachable by car in a little over an hour—no longer than a trip to J.F.K. And Stewart covers an area larger than Newark airport. Already, JetBlue and AirTran Airways run flights in and out of Stewart, and passenger traffic is up 33 percent in the past year. The Port Authority—which will take over the airport’s 93-year lease for $78.5 million—plans to build an international passenger terminal and predicts the refurbished airport could handle over three million passengers within the next five or six years. And Governors Eliot Spitzer and Jon Corzine of New Jersey are both on board.

But to make Stewart Airport truly thrive, and not restrict its service to suburban travelers who live in northern New Jersey and Westchester, Orange and Ulster counties, the Port Authority should get behind a direct, high-speed rail connection to New York City. That will be expensive, but unless Manhattan business travelers and tourists can take a train to and from Stewart, like Gatwick in England, there’s the danger of the airport becoming a white elephant and a drain on the Port Authority’s budget.