Not So Special Session: NYS Worsening Budget Deficit

Last week, in my legislative column highlighting our Conference’s release of its “Quick Start” economic forecast, I mentioned that Governor Paterson had called the State Legislature back into a Special Session to focus on New York’s multi-billion dollar budget deficit. The Governor also asked to address the legislature in a rare, joint session to outline the depths of the state’s fiscal crisis. Our Conference and I publicly said both were good ideas and, quite frankly, long overdue steps to help get our state back on track by closing what we had estimated is a $3.7 billion deficit for this year and $7.3 billion for next. Needless to say, there were decidedly high hopes that something of substance could be accomplished during the Special Session.THE “NOT SO SPECIAL SESSION”Unfortunately, the “Special Session” ended up being not so special. In fact, it will go down as a huge missed opportunity to get a running start at knocking the state’s sprawling budget deficit down to size. The culprit? Albany’s broken status quo that always seems to put off until tomorrow what should have been done yesterday. In this case, it was a refusal by Majorities in both the Assembly and Senate to take up any of the respective Deficit Reduction Plans (DRPs) offered by the Governor, our Conference or the Senate Minority Conference. The fact that the Special Session was specifically called to deal with the state’s budget deficit seemed to get lost in translation. What did not get lost was the severity of the crisis. In his speech to legislators the day before we convened, Governor Paterson laid out the stark financial challenges New York faces. In a particularly ominous warning, the Governor said that if nothing was done to reverse the state’s continued economic slide, New York could run out of money before year’s end. Yes, you read that correctly: if the financial downturn continues unabated, New York, the “Empire State,” could go broke. Think what that would mean to schools, nursing homes, taxpayers, retirees living on state pensions and contractors doing business with the state. New York State defaulting on its financial obligations is an absolute worst case scenario that should send a shiver down the spine of every policy maker, regardless if they are a Republican or a Democrat.In light of what the Governor told us – and I believe he deserves credit for warning New Yorkers about the size, severity and scope of New York’s economic crisis, just as our Conference has done – the Majorities still failed to bring any DRP to the floor for debate, let alone an up or down vote. This, in my opinion, was the height of irresponsibility and showed why so many continue to saddle the legislature with the “most dysfunctional in the nation” moniker. SOME REAL SOLUTIONS TO REDUCE THE DEFICITIn case you missed it, from July onward, I had issued numerous press releases and letters to the Governor and my fellow Legislative Leaders, urging that we convene in a public, five-way meeting to tackle issues like the state’s budget deficit head-on. Regrettably, those warnings went unheeded and we lost months as the deficit grew worse. Back on October 13, I proposed several non-partisan “conversation starters” to the Governor and my fellow Leaders that, when fully implemented, would deliver over $3 billion in budgetary savings. These proposals would require that state government tighten its belt a few notches first, instead of beginning with closing nursing homes, laying off teachers or slashing aid for local governments to find budget savings.The ideas I offered included enacting an across-the-board reduction in mid-year State Operating Funds; streamlining the state bureaucracy by consolidating agencies with overlapping functions; removing a state mandate off localities so they can decide which optional Medicaid services to provide; reducing Non-Personal Services across all state agencies; decreasing Personal Services by focusing on appointed, not civil service, administrative positions in state agencies; abolishing Member “pork,” and eliminating funding for state government to buy more private land. These ideas would form the basis of any common sense, non-partisan DRP but, as previously noted, they were not considered by either Majority in the state Legislature.THE PAST IS PROLOGUETo be sure, New York has weathered serious economic challenges before. In 1975, facing an economic downturn and a state government that had grown beyond its means, Governor Hugh Carey famously told legislators that “the days of wine and roses are over.” Governor Mario Cuomo had to deal with many tough financial decisions caused, in part, by a national recession – which typically lasts longer and is far more severe for New York State – in the early 1990s. Governor George Pataki faced the terrorist attacks of September 11th which, in addition to causing a heartbreaking loss of life, sent our state and national economies into a tailspin. Now, Governor Paterson is facing down challenges posed by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and our Conference joins him in realizing the need for real solutions. President John Kennedy once said that “the past is prologue,” meaning that the contours of our past shape the direction of our future. In this case, years of bad decisions by certain politicians in Albany from both political parties – decisions to tax, borrow and spend like there is no tomorrow – are negatively impacting New York State’s future, your future, our future. Tomorrow has arrived and the bill is staggering. This is why our Conference and I have been – and will continue – fighting the status quo, trying to sound the alarm bell about bad fiscal policies and how they damage our state. This fight is not Republicans versus Democrats, or upstate versus downstate. It is fiscal accountability and making tough decisions versus mortgaging the future and doing what is politically convenient. If we don’t get control over the state’s budget deficit, and do it soon, the options facing New York will be dramatically few. The legislature is expected to return for another Special Session on Monday – our Conference and I are hoping it won’t be a repeat of last week’s missed opportunity. As always, constituents wishing to discuss this topic, or any other state-related matter, should contact my district office at (315) 781-2030, or e-mail me at [email protected].

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