Can Skelos be a Statesman?

Instead of winning passage for his $5.2 billion plan of budget-balancing measures to help close multibillion-dollar gaps in this and next year’s budget, Governor David Paterson plans to go to Washington for help. Lots of luck. While one has to admire the governor’s determination, the notion of New York taking a place behind the Big Three automakers and various other charity cases is just a little unsettling.

It would have been a far, far better thing if Albany had gotten its collective act together and acted when it met in an emergency session on Tuesday. But action isn’t on the agenda of the Senate majority leader, Dean Skelos of Long Island. He wants to make sure that the unions representing teachers and hospital workers are held harmless for the time being. Then, when Mr. Skelos surrenders the Senate to the Democrats in January, all hell can break loose. As it will.

Mr. Skelos had a chance to work in concert with the governor in trying to achieve some sort of budget remediation during the special session. Instead, he resorted to politics as usual, trying to win a tactical victory by suddenly scheduling a vote on Governor Paterson’s proposal rather than continue to negotiate a resolution.

From the moment he succeeded Joe Bruno at the helm of the State Senate several months ago, Mr. Skelos has made it clear that he considers education and health care to be sacrosanct. That’s very noble, but like many such causes, it is utterly impractical. New York faces an emergency like few others in recent history—the fiscal crisis of the 1970s comes to mind, as does the Great Depression. Nothing, regrettably, is off the table when it comes to shoring up the state’s perilous finances.

Mr. Skelos has to realize that he has been given statewide responsibility at a critical time in New York history. This is no time to play the usual game of Albany hold ’em with the governor and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. A day of reckoning has arrived, and it’s time Mr. Skelos realized it.

For years, critics of Albany’s fast-and-loose spending practices have warned about the state’s over-reliance on the financial industry as a source of tax revenue. Governor Paterson realized the implications of the financial meltdown almost immediately, but Mr. Skelos and, to a certain extent, Mr. Silver have been slower to react to the radically new fiscal environment.

Mr. Silver, to his credit, has not been publicly critical of the governor’s plan to slash school and hospital spending. He might well oppose Mr. Paterson’s plan, but he has not made a public spectacle of his opposition. Mr. Skelos, unfortunately, has not shown that he understands the distinction between theater and reality.

Governor Paterson is correct when he says that the state must act now, at a time when legislators would rather be shopping for turkeys and handing out goodies, in order to minimize the additional pain that next year’s budget will bring.

It’s hard not to get nostalgic for the leadership Mr. Bruno could have brought to bear in this emergency. But for the next few weeks, anyway, Mr. Skelos is the Senate’s representative in the state’s budget talks. He has a chance to be remembered for his statesmanship and his willingness to put aside partisan displays for the greater good.

Carpe diem, Mr. Skelos.

Can Skelos be a Statesman?