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NY State Gov. Paterson: An honest evaluation

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Yesterday, Governor Paterson's real legacy began to unfold. Contrary to the caricature of an ineffective lightweight, Governor Paterson has met the test of leadership during some of the worst economic times in State government history. In the midst of devastating approval ratings which have effectively ended his chance of being elected outright, Governor Paterson has solved a longstanding constitutional issue by appointing Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch. The Court of Appeals sided with him, by a 5-4 margin.

His opponents, many of them fellow Democrats, won't give him credit however, because the impression of a "bumbling accidental governor" has stuck. He would be the first to acknowledge some structural, messaging and policy problems, but the distaste among voters is overblown and unfair. Take a look at his counterparts in regional States. Governor Jon Corzine currently trails Republican US Attorney Chris Christie in his re-election race. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's approval rating is only ten points above Paterson's -- in the mid-30s. Today, it was revealed that although she is faring better than her colleagues, Connecticut Governor Rell's approval rating has hit an all-time low of 59%. What is the common thread among all these Governors? As Bill Clinton said during his 1992 campaign, "It's the economy, stupid."

In terms of Governor Paterson's slide downward, it's important to dig deeper.

In part, the "why" has been answered. Paterson could not have assumed the Governorship at a worse time in the State's recent history. Having taken the oath in March, 2008, Paterson was faced with the almost impossible task of balancing a $124 billion dollar budget in fourteen days. Two weeks! Worse, he inherited a budget with a deficit of $4.7 billion dollars. Within 90 days of taking the oath, he told New York State that the budget deficit increased another $1.5 billion dollars.

One thing voters need to realize is that during trying economic times, States cannot just pay for programs by printing money. Governors must increase taxes, cut spending, or engage in combinations of both. What does this mean in real terms? Millions of New Yorkers could have lost healthcare coverage through Medicaid. Students attending SUNY and CUNY schools could have lost nurse training programs. Highway roads and bridges would not have been adequately maintained. Low income residents would have had reduced access to affordable housing statewide. Plain and simply put, a balanced budget with increased revenue impacts our lives in one way or another. Paterson's administration did "close the gap," so to speak. According to the State's budget folks:

"[Paterson's budget] closed a combined $20.1 billion deficit ($2.2 billion in 2008-09, $17.9 billion in 2009-10) that was equivalent to 37 percent of 2008-09 General Fund receipts. This represented the largest budget gap in State history, nearly twice as great as the one that the State addressed in 2003-04 ($11.2 billion)."

The $20.1 billion General Fund gap-closing plan included the following components:

Spending Reductions ($6.5 billion).The State's gap-closing plan included $6.5 billion in spending reductions. [The largest was healthcare savings of $2 billion and reducing the State's workforce by 8,690 positions...]

Revenue Actions ($5.4 billion).The State's gap-closing plan included $5.4 billion in General Fund revenue actions. The largest of these from instituting a temporary, three-year personal income tax increase on high-income taxpayers ($4.0 billion); increasing an assessment on utility companies ($557 million), "eliminating all itemized personal income tax deductions besides charitable deductions for high-income taxpayers ($140 million)" and other actions.

Extraordinary Federal Aid ($6.2 billion). The State utilized $6.2 billion in federal stimulus funding to help address its record budget deficit.

Non-recurring Actions ($2 billion)

One of the biggest complaints about the Governor among Democrats and Republicans is that he "raised taxes." Now, with such a daunting gap in financing, exactly what would Governor Giuliani, Governor Cuomo, Governor Lazio or even Governor Spitzer do differently? Remember, they cannot print money. Until these voters come up with something better, their complaints about him on this front ring hollow.

Second, they complain that the Governor disrespected Caroline Kennedy by a) not appointing her to the Senate seat, and b) allowing people in his administration to leak damaging information about her at the end of the affair. If the claim on taxes was unfair, this criticism is completely ridiculous. First off, can anyone tell me exactly why the Governor should have even considered appointing her out of the many better qualified candidates? Why did her name appear in consideration for the Seat? First, Kennedy has never held an elective position. Regardless of intellectual capability or involvement in charity programs, voters typically require candidates to have held some public office. Only Hillary Clinton, to the best of my knowledge, broke this tradition.

But even this analysis misses the point. There was no election for the Clinton vacancy. There was an appointment, and the only person with a vote was Governor David Paterson. The most anyone else could do was make recommendations, which the Governor, I am sure, took to heart. Had Paterson been the shrewd politician that voters love to dismiss, he could have appointed Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to the seat to clear the chance of Cuomo jumping into the Governor's race. He did not. This was an honorable move.

In sum, the Governor's ratings have tanked because of the economy and because of the drama surrounding Caroline Kennedy. Some might throw in the State Senate stalemate, but in fact, after he appointed Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch, his approval rating ticked upward, albeit slightly. Therefore, I doubt that this episode did any immediate damage, less cement his image among voters that he is ineffective.

In fact, Paterson has had several uncredited successes in office. I can't name them all, but we've established that he balanced the budget. This was a huge task. Second, the Governor signed a bill demanding that State government recognize same sex marriage. Third, Paterson overturned the last of the "Rockefeller" drug laws which, when in effect, mandated harsh sentences. 90% of the incarcerated were black and Latino. According to WNCY, "In addition to expanding drug courts and drug treatment, the law gives judges more sentencing discretion, and provides harsher penalties for kingpins and adults who sell drugs to children." He also signed a ban on texting while driving.

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www.smithonpolitics.com

Nicholas Smith is a former Commissioner for the City of Berkeley, CA. He is currently a law student in New York City, and blogs about the day's headlines at www.smithonpolitics.com
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