9:40 am Jul. 13, 2010
ALBANY—There’s really nothing left for David Paterson to do now.
The legislative session ended with a thud earlier this month, as lawmakers settled on a budget plan that didn't have the dramatic policy changes and spending reductions Paterson was looking for to put the state on a more sound fiscal footing after he leaves office—and presumably politics—at the end of this year. It was yet another defeat for him, and a lost opportunity to salvage a career legacy that will eternally forefront his brief, ineffectual reign as governor.
(Paterson said immediately afterward that he was “disappointed, stunned and frankly chagrined” at the legislature’s actions, and responded as best he could, with what amounts to a dramatic gesture: thousands of line-item vetoes of the legislature’s budget that, relative to the overall amounts at stake, don’t add up to much at all.)
But the governor shouldn’t be said to have gone down without a fight.
Over several weeks of this brutally hot summer, months after he formally aborted his scandal-distracted, if-you-must efforts to muster an electoral defense against Andrew Cuomo, David Paterson actually had Albany on the run.
The issue was, as it always is, the budget: a swollen $136 billion chimera that, $9.2 billion out of balance, would require massive cuts to education and health care spending and possible layoffs of state workers, to say nothing of some tax increases. In Capitol terms, what this meant was that any meaningful action by Paterson and the legislature to address the problem would pit them against unions with the means both to guarantee lawmakers easy re-election and to underwrite significant ad campaigns attacking them. The legislators wanted no part of it. So the budget deadline passed, the air filled with excuse-making. Paterson dutifully submitted emergency appropriation bills which served as “extenders” for the basic function of government.
The story of Albany for the past two years has centered on the Senate, where Democrats and their nominal leader, John Sampson, run a highly dysfunctional 32-30 majority. The 30 Republicans have perfected obstinate bloc-voting, and individual Democrats—each of whom had the power to sink the majority on any given vote—quickly applied the lesson that cohesiveness is for suckers. Complimenting the disorder of the Senate the whole time was the unassailable lethargy of the Assembly, where Ent-like speaker Sheldon Silver controls a Democratic supermajority that is seemingly impervious to public opinion, editorial outrage and, as Eliot Spitzer can unhappily attest, governors with “popular mandates.”
Paterson tried yelling and screaming, but it didn’t work—the legislature was unwilling to do anything painful. He called out lawmakers during his State of the State address. Still nothing. But in May he realized a little trick: he was the only one who could draft “extender” bills, the temporary, customarily skeletal budget bills that pay for the functioning of New York’s government while state leaders are working out the real budget. So the governor went commando.
He paired the emergency money with structural cuts, loading the bills—each of which kept government running for a week—with farther-reaching measures to correct the deficit, and dared legislators to vote against them, thereby shutting down government. There was no bluff to call: Paterson had no future in politics, meaning that they alone would reap the whirlwind of closing nursing homes and shuttering D.M.V. offices. They were essentially negotiating with a suicide bomber.
They swallowed hard and passed the bills.
He had trumped the Senate’s we can’t get 32 votes because that guy is holding out act, and the I’ll just wait this out until you get sick of the stalemate approach of the Assembly.
“The normal incentive, the theoretical democratic check and balance doesn’t exist; is tilted way in favor of the executive,” said a clearly amused Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “The governor’s the steamroller and the legislature is the asphalt.” Legislators protested—Assemblyman Jack McEneny led some fellow Democrats in a sit-in at Paterson’s office, tricking State Police to let him in on the pretext he was giving a tour—but Paterson just smirked at them, and told them to take it up with their leaders. In radio interviews, the governor dared them.
“What I have suggested to the legislature is they just take the budget that I issued…and just blame the whole thing on me,” he said on June 3. “And pass it. And say: he’s intractable, he isn’t compromising and we’re sick of him and we don’t want the budget to be late, so we’ll just pass it. We can all get out of here, and I’ll take the blame, and I welcome it. Because time will bear out what I’m saying.'”
He made legislators chop the health care budget and enact a new tax on cigarettes. Then came the big one: school aid cuts, authorization to sell wine in grocery stores and a property tax cap, all rolled into a single extender. Paterson announced it June 25—three days before the government would shut down.
“It makes an interesting game of chicken,” said Assemblyman Bill Parment, a Democrat from Chautauqua County and a 28-year legislative veteran, as he left the Capitol that Friday.
And that was about as far as it went.
Just before midnight, Silver and Sampson figured out how to halt the steamroller. They wrote their own budget bills. And just like that, Paterson's leverage was gone. He could still veto individual items, but he would no longer be able to threaten a shutdown.
The bills were based, by law, on the spending plan Paterson first proposed in January, but they restored some of his school aid cuts, eliminated his tax cap and took out a proposal to allow SUNY and CUNY the ability to raise tuition unilaterally—basically all the stuff that might possibly have compelled any of the members to explain anything difficult to their constituents.
Not shockingly, the members of the legislature quickly passed the bills written by their leaders. Senator Bill Stachowski, Democrat from Buffalo, tried to hold out, but was forced into place. Paterson called legislators irresponsible, and vetoed their extra school aid. Then everyone went home for the Fourth of July.
“I think of the legislature like my three-year-old, and our budget was broccoli,” one administration official told me. “The kid says broccoli is disgusting and that he won’t eat it, so you then try to force him to eat brussels sprouts. The kid refuses to eat those too, and to spite you goes back to the broccoli. So my kid's eating broccoli, but who won?”
Stachowski, the majority—subverting holdout, essentially forced the Senate to go home without passing another budget bill—the one that reinstated taxes on clothing sales—and still won’t declare public support for the last piece of the budget until something is done with the SUNY tuition. (It’s a big deal in Buffalo, and “Stack” has a tough re-election.)
Meanwhile, the governor has checked out.
“The reason that I have not been negotiating with the legislative leaders is not that I’m unwilling to talk to them, it's that I set up a deadline. And the deadline was, pass my budget on June 28 or pass your budget,” Paterson told me this weekend in Utica, where he made an appearance at an annual 15-kilometer foot race called the Boilermaker.
“So they put their budget out, but they haven’t passed it. Now, when they complete passing their budget, I get to either or sign it or veto the parts that I think make the state’s fiscal situation unbalanced—there may be yet another card to play.”
But in the game of political perception, the legislators have done their part. There are enough Democrats in the Assembly to get the two-thirds majority needed to override Paterson's vetoes, and Senate Democrats will be happy to dare their Republican opponents to vote against school aid restorations. Legislators don't expect the governor to veto the last part of the budget—the tax bill—which is based largely on what he submitted in June.
So the governor’s talking more now about his achievements, and about his next steps. He forced same-sex marriage into the public consciousness (though he could not force it to legislative passage) and raised the basic welfare grant for the first time in years. He gave judges additional discretion for low-level drug offenders. He created a new tier in the pension system for newly hired workers. And, as he points out without being asked, the state didn’t declare bankruptcy on his watch.
Until last week, Paterson would say something like, “I’m too busy to think about it” whenever anyone asked him what he would do after leaving office. But during an interview on WOR, he gave his questioner a more substantial answer.
“I realize that I’ve got so much to do, that what I really would like is just kind of, um, let it come to me,” he said. “And I would just need a couple of days where a decision doesn’t have to be made every 10 minutes or a veto doesn’t need to be signed every 10 seconds, and I think that that’s something I will do later in the summer. But right now what really concerns me is that I leave this state in fiscal order for the next governor.”
He spent a blistering Sunday in Utica, the day before he went to Lake Placid to sign a bill making it easier to prosecute drunk drivers.
“I’m jealous of all the runners," he told the sweaty crowd in Utica. "I ran two years ago and I was the first governor to ever run the Boilermaker and I wanted to be the second. But I’ll come back next year and run this with you—whatever they call me next year.”
Jimmy Vielkind is the political reporter for the Albany Times Union and principal contributor to its Capitol Confidential blog. He is also a regular contributor to 'New York NOW,' a weekly public television program examining New York politics and government. Jimmy has covered the Capitol since November, 2008, for The New York Observer and the TU. His writing has also appeared in City Limits, the New York Daily News and the Glens Falls Chronicle. He lives in Troy.
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