Chris Smith on Today’s Budget Speech: A Fresh Start for Both State and Governor?

David Paterson
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Did we really need, after his 32 years in office, more proof that Joe Bruno is a political genius? Well, we're getting it anyway: One small lesson from the state's mushrooming budget mess is that Bruno knew exactly when to quit.

Decades of overspending on health care, schools, and pensions — much of it to prop up Bruno's Republican majority in the State Senate — are combining with the broader economic meltdown to sink New York State into a gargantuan hole. Even if the looming deficit is smaller, as a percentage of the budget, than it was in 1995, when George Pataki took office, the shortfall is a certified crisis because the global context is worse. Eliot Spitzer warned that the state's finances were dangerously out of whack even before he was elected governor, but he could never manufacture a genuine sense of urgency in the rest of Albany — especially because spending big money helps preserve the Legislature's power. So Spitzer quickly devolved into provoking other, very different crises, which is why the bill is now landing in the lap of the accidental governor, David Paterson.

And it's exactly that nickname Paterson will try to erase tonight with a live, televised speech at 5:10. Whatever the policy particulars of Paterson's (five-minute!) address, the political message is that he wants to use this moment to prove he's something more than the product of a hooker scandal, that he isn't (just) the blind guy with the complicated marital and romantic history. It would be a truly hopeful opening in state politics — if only something, anything, in Paterson had undergone in his professional life seemed like good preparation for whittling down a $6 billion deficit while his hands are tied by an obstreperous Legislature.

The early glimpses of what Paterson will say in an hour aren't especially encouraging. No doubt the governor will do a fine, frightening job of describing the problem. And it's good that he's going to summon the Legislature back into a special session, and push to finish off the property-tax cap. But Paterson apparently isn't planning to challenge the Legislature to do anything truly difficult, like reopen this year's budget, the one in which the governor went along with an increase in state spending higher than the rate of inflation. Need more gloomy signs? Sheldon Silver, the dark prince of delay, has already brushed off Paterson's worries, telling the Daily News this morning that Paterson is being "overly cautious" and that Silver would prefer to wait until October to get to work.

No doubt the speech will be tinkered with right up until airtime. If Paterson is serious about salvaging the state's budget, and his own reelection chances, here are a few things he can do: Confront the health-care and teachers' unions by name. Declare that he'll introduce business and middle-class tax cuts and refuse any attempts to raise taxes. And cut a few of the pork projects scheduled for Joe Bruno's old district.

Paterson's great talent is as a conciliator, and maybe he can find a way to cajole and backslap the state down from the budget cliff. It would be the first happy surprise in the five ridiculously tumultuous months that he's been governor. —Chris Smith