David Paterson is talking, and acting, like a man on a mission, and none too soon. New York is on the brink of fiscal chaos—can you say California East?—but the State Legislature seems content to conduct business as usual. It is up to Mr. Paterson to lead, and he appears eager to do so.
Albany has to close a $3.2 billion hole in its current budget. Mr. Paterson summoned legislators to the capital for a special session last week, but precious little was done. Granted, the options are dreary and politically unpalatable, especially with elections looming next year. But, like it or not, legislators simply have to cut spending and services if New York is to avoid the fate of California, home of state-issued IOUs.
Some legislators have suggested that things aren’t so bad, that the current deficit can be bridged with debt refinancing and other one-shot schemes. If this sounds familiar, well, it should—Albany has been relying on one-shot solutions for decades. Government watchdogs have spent the last quarter-century warning that a day of reckoning would come, and that it would not be pretty. That day is here, and the watchdogs were right—it isn’t pretty. Governor Paterson estimates that in addition to the current $3.2 billion deficit, the state will face a $6.8 billion deficit in next year’s budget, due on April 1, 2010.
In a stern letter to lawmakers on Sunday, Mr. Paterson said that Albany has “no other choice but to make reductions to health care and education.” Those are fighting words, because unions representing health care workers and teachers are tremendously powerful and are not shy about attacking anybody who would even consider tampering with health care and education budgets. In singling out those two areas—which account for more than half of all state spending—Mr. Paterson has made it clear that he is willing to make tough choices, even though he will be slandered around the state by union-paid television ads.
The Legislature cannot do what it does best—run and hide from a problem. Mr. Paterson has shown a flash of political courage that many didn’t think he had. It’s up to legislators to respond in kind. Otherwise, a revitalized governor may take his campaign to the people. It’s hard to imagine that legislators would emerge from such a confrontation intact.