Empire State of Madness

Debt, Dysfunction & the Accidental Governor

New York has to be the Number One! Unfortunately, our current circumstances mean that we try to rival California for fiscal mismanagement -- and Illinois for governmental dysfunction/corruption.

The state faces a $15.4 billion budget deficit. Gov. David Paterson -- one of only two legally blind governors AND one of only two black governors -- offered an early opening approach to dealing with the deficit: He's suggested raising a total of 137 taxes and fees and only pretty nominal "spending cuts." In fact, spending on the state's $121 billion budget actually increases by $1.3 billion!

On Wednesday, the Governor gave his State of the State address (he described it as "perilous"). Unfortunately, rather than announce more cuts, Paterson decried the position the state was in -- then proceeded to offer proposals to allow "kids" to stay on their parents health insurance until age 29! Yep, 30 is the new 20. Paterson also spent a healthy part of a meandering speech to focus on the "evil" of child obesity!

Meanwhile, Democrats took official control of the Legislature this week when their majority status in the state Senate was affirmed. That should have been assumed as of election day. Unfortunately, three legislators (dubbed the Gang of Three) held back their support of would-be Majority Leader Malcolm Smith -- trying to extract (many less-charitable folks would say "extort") various institutional concessions in exchange for not defecting to the Republicans (the GOP had controlled the chamber for four decades). Eventually, the blatant public brought comparisons to Blagojevich's attempting to sell Barack Obama's seat.

Smith, willing to bargain away much of his majority leader powers, faced a near-revolt from his own membership. While the official quid pro quo was pulled from public discussion, the "Gang" members ended up getting committee chairmanships and did indeed support Smith. (As an added bonus, early on the Gang of Three was actually the "Gang of Four": The fourth member -- Queens Sen. Hiram Monserratte -- endorsed Smith early on; unfortunately, he was arrested last week on a domestic violence incident involving his girlfriend. On the upside, he was still sworn into office this week.)

Like Illinois, there is much chatter over a certain high-profile U.S Senate seat -- that currently held by Hillary Rodham Clinton. The secretary of state-designate will not step down until she is officially confirmed (hearings begin Tuesday). While there is no hint of "Blagojevich-ian" scandal surrounding this seat, it doesn't mean there's no drama attached to it.  Gov. Paterson and various advisers have given all sorts of conflicting signals as to who Paterson is leaning to appointing to Clinton's seat. Caroline Kennedy is the biggest name and is probably a slight favorite at this point.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a major booster of Kennedy. However, the fact that she has never been involved in elective politics and appears ready to swoop in and take the seat because of her name and personal connection to President-elect Obama sticks in the craw of many ambitious New York politicians -- including Representatives Carolyn Maloney, Steve Israel and Jerrod Nadler, all of whom have expressed interest in getting the appointment. Of course, the other truly big name hoping to get picked is Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, son of the ex-Gov. Mario Cuomo. While Kennedy has had a high profile media tour to familiarize herself to New Yorkers, Cuomo has largely kept quiet -- though reports surfaced this week that his aides are making it clear that their boss must not be left out of the discussion.

The bottom line to all this intrigue? The Senate appointment is a distraction this troubled state could do without. Five years ago, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU issued a report declaring New York's legislature the most dysfunctional in the country. This week, the center issued a follow-up report, whose title, Still Broken, basically says it all. But things are actually worse than even the Brennan Center attests. Beyond the institutional dysfunction, two of the three statewide elected officials weren't elected to their current jobs -- Paterson became governor because of Eliot Spitzer's prostitution scandal and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli was appointed by the Legislature when his predecessor resigned in a corruption scandal. Paterson is well-liked by his colleagues and he has a nice, disarming, self-deprecatory personality. Unfortunately though, he hasn't demonstrated that he has the necessary skills to take control of this state's agenda. 

Thus, the state wallows in red ink, high spending and high taxation, even as its longtime golden goose -- Wall Street -- evaporates before our eyes. And, unlike our peers in dysfunctionality, as personally engaging as Paterson might be, he can't quite manage to be as potentially entertaining as a former mega movie star or profane corrupt inside player with a bad hairdo, which makes New York the state with all the mess -- and none of the fun.     

Robert A. George is a New York Post editorial writer who blogs at Ragged Thots and dabbles in stand-up comedy.

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