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Inconvenient Truths

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Governor Cuomo kept his word and presented a state budget of $132.9 billion for Fiscal Year 2011-12, which begins April 1. This figure, believe it or not, is a sharp brake on spending, the first reductions since the Pataki years. He also gave a fine speech Tuesday afternoon, with greatly improved visual aids, to make the state's financial distress evident to anyone willing to see, including the legislature.

For eight years, New York Civic has been preaching that state spending is irresponsibly high, a notion that has gradually gained acceptance even though is nothing is done about it.

On September 22, 2002, we wrote an article headlined Drifting From Erie Toward Ontario. The geographic reference to the two Great Likes is intended to imply to readers just what happens to ships that try to drift from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario: they go over Niagara Falls, a natural wonder but a disaster for shipping. Vessels can use the multiple locks of the Welland Canal, which connect the two lakes a little over ten miles west of the Niagara River, which forms the boundary between the United States and Canada. The original canal was begun in 1824 and opened in 1829. It was subsequently widened and enlarged until 1932, when it reached its present size. Niagara Falls has occupied its present location since the end of the Wisconsin glaciation in the last Ice Age.

The point of our 2002 article, which was written when Governor Pataki was in his second (of three) terms, was that New York State was running out of money. In the intervening eight years, during the administrations of Pataki, Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson, disaster was postponed by borrowing billions of dollars in the name of various public authorities which are euphemistically referred to as 'off-budget entities.' That is an Enronian phrase that should rank with 'collateralized debt obligations' in the vocabulary of fiscal irresponsibility.

In his remarks Tuesday, the new governor also referenced Enron, once No. 7 in the S&P 500, and now a synonym for fiscal flimflam. We have mentioned that defunct corporation 18 times over the eight years of our editorial criticism of New York State's unsound borrowing practices and concealment of its growing deficits. Governor Cuomo said:

When you use reality-based budgeting, as opposed to Albany-based budgeting, which is where Albany meets Enron, in our opinion, the Albany-based budgeting institutionally assumes an exorbitant growth rate that is disconnected from fiscal reality. And this has been going on for many, many years.

It is too early in the budget season, for us, anyway, to offer judgments on the individual appropriations that the governor proposes for agencies. But he is definitely inclined in the right direction. It is ironic that his message has resonated most with Republicans and Conservatives, and least with the Democratic left. That shows that the principal fault line in fiscal policy is not between the two parties, but between spenders and savers, with the Democrats evenly divided.

For those of you who are political junkies and keep box scores (which we think is completely laudable), the vote on imposing the property tax cap proposed by Governor Cuomo in his campaign was 45 to 17. The 45 consisted of all 32 Republicans and 13 Democrats. The 17 Democrats who voted against the cap were Addabbo, Avella, Diaz, Dilan, Duane, Espaillat, Hassell-Thompson, Krueger, Kruger, Montgomery, Parker, Peralta, Perkins, Rivera, Serrano, Squadron, and Stavisky.

The 13 Democrats who voted in favor of the cap were Adams, Breslin, Carlucci, Gianaris, Huntley, Kennedy, Klein, Oppenheimer, Sampson, Savino, Smith, Stewart-Cousins and Valesky. We note that the four members of the Independent Democratic Conference - Senators Jeff Klein, David Carlucci, Diane Savino and David Valesky - all supported the tax cap, voting with the Republicans, as did Senate Democratic leader John Sampson. So much for ideology, vote your district.

It has been a generation since New York had a governor of whom we could be proud. A swallow does not make a summer, but think of where we were on Groundhog Day four years ago. The new governor had already described himself as "a fucking steamroller," was preparing for the Troopergate war against Senate majority leader Joe Bruno, and was trying to impose his choice for State Comptroller, Martha Stark, on the state legislature to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Alan Hevesi following his first felony conviction.

The legislature chose one of its own, Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli, for the plum position. DiNapoli was a better choice than Spitzer's candidate, who was subsequently compelled to resign as City Finance Commissioner because of sundry irregularities whose details you can find with the aid of Google. DiNapoli is not as bright as Hevesi, but there are more important qualities, like decency and integrity, that high public office demands. The Comptroller is a good man, highly affable and liked by his colleagues. His industry and devotion are unquestioned. Nonetheless, it is ridiculous that he be the sole trustee of a pension fund that exceeds $120 billion. That should be corrected.

BTW, DiNapoli's new First Deputy Comptroller is Pete Grannis (park name "Reliable"), who served 32 years (1975-2007) in the Assembly and four as State Commissioner of Environmental Protection before being rudely and unceremoniously dismissed by the dying swans of the lame duck Paterson administration. When Grannis asked to see Paterson to ask why he was being fired after four years service, particularly since it was only weeks before the whole bunch would be turned out by the calendar, he was denied that opportunity.

REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST

When I was Parks Commissioner, February 2 was the day of an annual ritual, consulting a groundhog who would advise what the season would bring. If the day were clear, and the groundhog saw his shadow, that meant that winter would continue for six more weeks (until mid-March). If the day were cloudy, there would be no shadow, which indicated that winter was over. In 2011, winter is not over, no matter what the groundhog indicates.

The groundhog custom is most closely associated with Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Its spread to New York zoos (Queens and Staten Island) was flagrantly derivative. The Borough President of Queens, Claire Shulman (park name "Queen Bee"), a good friend of parks, came to the Queens Zoo every year to open the little door behind which the animals hovered, awaiting their annual fifteen seconds of fame.

We had a difficult experience one year with Claire's predecessor, the late Borough President of Queens, Donald Manes. On a similar occasion, he saw a pair of otters climbing out a pond in the zoo, and he threw rocks at them, even when asked to stop. To me, that was as bad as all the money he extorted from parking meter operators. You can Google him, too, for a sad chapter in New York City history. Who ever heard of a great big borough president stoning an innocent family of otters?