From The Editor

The budget stops at Pataki’s desk

What passes for government up in Albany is so disappointing that we would hesitate calling anything an all-time low. But certainly the recent budget negotiations, or lack thereof, have not been one of the high points.

Gov. George Pataki, by not negotiating much with the State Assembly and Senate, has taken a bad system – namely the “three men in a room” closed door talks where the two legislative leaders and the governor work out a deal – and made it worse by taking himself out of the room.

We don’t know if the rumors of Pataki angling for a plum White House appointment are true, but it is hard to think of another reason to explain his putting up such a pretense of an anti-tax stand to close the $10 billion–plus deficit.

We say pretense, since the governor has allowed the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to raise subway fares – which is like most taxes only worse since they are more regressive. Ultimately, even if the lawsuit to prevent the fare increase is successful, it will only mean a delay in the inevitable. Nevertheless it will be a victory for everyone if the M.T.A. loses, because perhaps it will teach officials that they can’t hold public hearing shams based on false information. If a fare increase is the best of bad options, let the M.T.A. make its case using the real numbers.

As for the state’s budget mess, Pataki bares a large share of the blame since he insisted on spending lavishly on key labor contracts to ensure his reelection while putting off all hard decisions until after his landslide last November.

After he helped dig us into the hole, Pataki pulled back and let the liberal Assembly and conservative State Senate override over 100 of his budget vetoes. The state’s new budget is far from perfect, but at least it provides the city with a reasonable amount of budget relief and does a better job of spreading the pain around.

The governor may feel he was vindicated when the state’s bond rating was downgraded, but we can’t help but think of Claude Rains’ shock to learn that Rick was running a casino in “Casablanca” when we hear Pataki speak of the merits of fiscal responsibility. Pataki’s budget was full of gimmicks too and it is hard to imagine any bond-rating agency holding it up as a model of good budgeting.

The governor’s strategy from here may be to blame all of the future problems on the budget that passed despite his vetoes, but he made a conscious decision to let the budget become law without his input.

There were better ways for the state to help the city than the proposed sales taxes, like congestion tolling on the East River bridges and reinstating the commuter tax. But the Assembly foolishly let the commuter-tax horse out of the barn in May 1999, and if the 9/11 attack on the city wasn’t enough to convince Albany to restore it, we suspect there is little on heaven and earth that will lead to a change.

There’s a lot of pain and a lot of blame to share in this harsh budgetary environment, but one thing is clear to us: Governor Pataki does not burnish his national Republican credentials by being deserted in New York State by his own party and leaving the tough decisions to others.


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