The State We’re In

Photo: Antonio Calanni/AP; Zuma/Newscom; Mario Tama/Getty Images

I love Louisiana. You can’t beat the food, the music, the fishing. The resilience shown by thousands of residents after Katrina is inspiring; my best friend endured three years in a FEMA trailer while rebuilding, by hand, his hurricane-devastated house, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. And how ’bout dem Saints?

But you don’t want to model your state government after the home of Huey Long and Edwin Edwards in any measure of budgetary health and legislative competence. So it’s especially depressing to read the new study by the Pew Center on the States and find New York trailing not only Louisiana but also such hotbeds of rectitude as Alaska (go, Sarah!), New Mexico (where they imported our state-pension-fund corruption scandal), and South Carolina (how is Mark Sanford still governor?). New York’s fiscal year 2010 budgetary fitness ranks lower than that of 33 other states when Pew feeds economic statistics and political grades into its magical computers.

At least we’re not as bad as California. The state that shutters its government offices three days most weeks and recently raised tuition at its public colleges by 32 percent is the standard by which Pew judges everyone else. New York is considered better off because the state’s home-foreclosure rate is one-third that of California’s, and our unemployment rate hasn’t soared quite as quickly. On the other hand, thanks to our city’s and state’s dependence on Wall Street, New York’s revenue has dropped faster than California’s, and our state-budget gap is fifth worst. “True, California’s budget is in worse shape now,” Elizabeth Lynam, a state analyst for New York’s Citizens Budget Commission, says wearily. “But we could get there yet.”

That’s because New York’s elected officials seem determined to make us No. 1 in dysfunction. Sacramento’s pols can at least point to three decades of nutty ballot initiatives tying their hands. Albany doesn’t even have that excuse. Governor David Paterson deserves credit for sounding the budget alarm, early and repeatedly. Just when you’re ready to root for the guy, though, he backs down: Paterson can’t even force New York drivers to spend $25 for spiffy new, if functionally unnecessary, license plates that would generate $260 million in revenue.

That the car-tag gimmick was even floated points to the larger problem. The state’s feckless legislators are beholden to campaign donors, particularly the unions representing teachers and health-care workers. So Albany will eventually cobble together some method to pay the bills for the rest of this fiscal year—maybe filching $400 million from the public authorities’ budgets—while dodging serious spending cuts and lurching toward a $20 billion deficit three years from now.

Ah, but three years is an eternity, right? Maybe the economy will soar. Maybe Governor Andrew Cuomo will be the savior. Sure. At the moment, Cuomo’s rise (aside from his pesky Paterson problem) is becoming increasingly, eerily similar to Eliot Spitzer’s: a crusading attorney general surfing toward the governor’s office on a wave of huge poll numbers promising that this time Albany will be fixed. Spitzer’s story ended badly, of course, but he had one thing right: No governor will make real progress on reform unless he can alter the composition of the State Assembly and Senate, or at least make its members more dependent on the governor than on the unions. More likely, the budget problems will need to sink to truly Californian desperation before we can aspire to be as good as … Arkansas.

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The State We’re In