Gov. David Paterson summoned state legislative leaders to Albany for a “frank discussion of state finances” a week ago.
In announcing the meeting he said, “I spoke directly with Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. They stand ready to work with me and take whatever actions will be necessary to protect our state’s finances.”
It’s abundantly clear that our governors, legislative leaders and rank-and-file state legislators have never been committed to “take whatever actions” to stabilize state finances. For decades.
Paterson must know that state legislators are opposed to discussing any cuts in the bloated $124 billion budget during an election year.
Moreover, these profiles in courage can’t even bring themselves to use the word “cut.” Unfortunately, Paterson has done nothing but dither while Empire State finances crumble. He speaks unctuously about what needs to be done, but demonstrates no ability to follow through and finally achieve fiscal restraint.
For example, our governor ordered a hiring freeze. Good. That’s one of the easiest belt-tightening measures to implement. But two weeks ago 78-year-old retired Assemblyman Ivan Lafayette was handed a $140,000-a-year plum patronage job at the Insurance Department. Lafayette became a deputy for “community affairs.”
What a joke.
If Paterson doesn’t possess the fortitude to save us a measly $140,000, how can he possibly save the billions that are required in the face of this looming budgetary crisis?
Where the bucks are
Gov. Paterson and legislative leaders know where the savings rest in New York’s coffers. Here are the big-ticket budget items they will never discuss and why:
-- School aid. The fattest sacred cow in Albany. This year the governor and Legislature approved a $1.75 billion or 8.9 percent increase in school aid, a predictably irresponsible fiscal decision.
Total school aid is now a staggering $21.4 billion. Why couldn’t the governor and Legislature simply approve the same budget as the prior year, and save New Yorkers $1.75 billion?
Asking that common-sense question is considered intern-level naive at the Capitol. It’s because state legislators are scared to death of the powerful teacher unions that have had their greedy claws in New York’s taxpayers for decades.
-- Medicaid. The definition of out-of-control government. We have the most costly Medicaid program in the nation, spending nearly twice the national per capita average at $45 billion. It’s such a bureaucratic monstrosity that New York spends more on the program than California and Illinois combined.
None of these disturbing facts matter. Because, much like the teacher unions, our state legislators are petrified of 1199, New York City’s largest union representing 300,000 health workers.
That union orders our elected officials around like they’re servants at a wedding, and everyone knows it. These selfish unionists have never been willing to concede anything for the New York taxpayer.
-- State agencies. New York state government is populated by one worthless agency, commission, bureau and division after another. Paterson lists 112 on his Web site. If the Legislature had the guts to eliminate half of them, New Yorkers wouldn’t notice or care.
One of the more destructive state agencies is the Empire State Development Corporation, a state-sanctioned automatic teller machine.
ESDC bureaucrats, empowered by an unseemly $1 billion budget, fork over hundreds of millions every year in subsidies to bribe businesses into staying in New York. It should be abolished.
State agency employees are a great untouchable, as they’re represented by the Public Employees Federation and the Civil Service Employees Association. And, yes, Albany’s legislators run from these unions like a frightened poodle running from a pit bull.
One serious word about cutting the massive 280,000-member state work force — or privatizing services — and PEF and CSEA unleash their usual demagogic radio and television ads. The only principle they possess is self-preservation.
If Paterson, Silver and Skelos are truly committed to real fiscal reform, they will target billions in savings. They’ll drag the union leaders destroying our state into their offices and tell them their taxpayer shakedown, thug tactics are no longer acceptable. It won’t happen.
Instead, there will be more superficial talk about the budget’s nickels and dimes, and our state’s leaders will pretend unions are not running state government. And the decline of our once-great state will continue apace.
Christopher Chichester lives in Albany and is a former spokesman for Governor George E. Pataki, U.S. Senator Olympia J. Snowe and Congressman Lamar S. Smith.