Governor Paterson’s Wine-and-Roses Moment

During a televised speech carried statewide, Governor David Paterson adopted a new, tougher line with Albany legislators, vowing to reconvene the legislative session so lawmakers can cut spending and reduce the size of the state’s workforce in hopes of plugging the state’s estimated $6.4 billion budget deficit.

“That is $1.4 billion higher than it was just a few short months ago,” said Mr. Paterson during his five-minute speech, delivered in the Red Room of the Capitol Building at 5:10 on the evening of July 29. He said, “We are going to end the legislators’ vacations and bring them back to Albany to re-prioritize the way we manage New York State’s finances.”

That line underscores Mr. Paterson’s effort to use what looks to be a massive crisis as an opportunity to refashion the legislative priorities that were thrust upon him when he replaced former Governor Eliot Spitzer in March. Mr. Paterson has distinguished himself from his predecessor most clearly by the more conciliatory style he has adopted with legislative leaders in both houses.

Though the announcement was dramatic, the problem Mr. Paterson said was barreling down on lawmakers was, according to some lawmakers, a surprise to no one in Albany.

“We knew this was going to happen,” said Diane Savino, a Democratic state senator representing parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn.

In an interview before the speech, Ms. Savino said that lawmakers passed this year’s state budget quickly “for political reasons, because we had just been through a crisis, we had a new governor, we wanted the world to see government was working again.

“And at the same time, we were trying to get in front of the April 17 revenue projections because people anticipated they were going to be worse [than the previous projections], and the numbers we were working with might be less than the numbers were working with the day before.”

Mr. Paterson’s live speech was ostensibly directed at the public—“I will do everything I can to make sure that New York’s families do not freeze when it gets cold”—but also carried an unmistakable message for state legislators, all of whom face reelection later this year.

“For too long, we have done less with more, and paid more for less,” the governor said. “Now government will do what families have done when their incomes have fallen. We will cut spending.”

In reports published prior to the speech, sources close to Mr. Paterson likened the state’s current fiscal problem to the one faced by New Yorkers and Governor Hugh Carey in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Veteran political operative and spokesman Bill Cunningham, who worked for Mr. Carey during the 1970s and served as communications director for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, saw this as a reason for cautious (if long-term) optimism.

He recalled that the fiscal crisis became clear right when Mr. Carey won the general election and began reviewing the state and city finances, leading to the famous State of the State speech in January of 1975 in which he told lawmakers that “the days of wine and roses are over.”

But, as Mr. Cunningham noted, after raising taxes on gasoline (an extra 10 cents per gallon) and cutting spending in areas like health care, Carey was able to start cutting taxes in 1977.

“So, you can conceivably deal with budget problems that seem intractable and still get to a point where you can cut taxes,” said Mr. Cunningham. “But Governor Paterson doesn’t have a full four-year term in front of him. He has two and a half years left to go before an election.”

“That’s what Carey knew. That’s what Michael Bloomberg knew. You make your tough decisions and you move on,” he said.

The catch is that Mr. Paterson will have to get the Legislature to consent to his tough decisions. And they’ve already got their own ideas.

Bill Perkins, the state senator who currently occupies Mr. Paterson’s old Harlem-based seat, said he wants to raises taxes, but only on people who “benefited from what I consider to be an unfair tax structure.”

“I don’t think we should be, in that respect, looking at those who have wealth as sacred cows,” he said.

Ms. Savino, who co-chairs the Democratic State Senate Campaign Committee, offered a flat-out “no way” to raising taxes, and implored the governor to look at ways to reduce state spending. Ms. Savino suggested reductions in capital projects and in the lawmakers’ discretionary spending, known as member items, an instrument by which she said lawmakers were “pissing away” money.

The discussion, in other words, is just beginning, even though time—at political and financial terms—is rapidly running out.

“If he doesn’t take stern action now, people will assume he’s giving a pass to the Legislature until after the elections,” said Mr. Cunningham. “So, if he gives the Legislature a pass on this until after they’re reelected, that would probably not be considered a hallmark of strong leadership.”

apaybarah@observer.com

Governor Paterson’s Wine-and-Roses Moment