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Going Broke in Albany, Part 3: Why We're Still Screwed

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How bad is it up there in our capital? Are you trying to follow the story of our state budget, but find New York politics to be needlessly complex and boring? I'm writing three opinion pieces that describe what's happening in Albany with the budget, its severity, media coverage, and solutions. This is Part 3, which addresses last week's budgetary legislation in Albany, and what went wrong. For reference, here is Part 1 and 2.

I bet this Deficit Reduction Plan (DRP) won't last us through May. That's about six months before the next bout of calamity.

I figure that the last round of these cheap, politically safe and financially ineffective one-shot cuts lasted us only seven months. That was last April, when our Senate crafted the 2009-10 budget plan. That plan, pathetically similar to the deficit reduction plan (DRP) passed last week, brought us directly to our current straits. This time, however we have less money in reserve than before, and a system that continues to devour more capital than it can raise.

So why should these cuts work this time?

They shouldn't. In fact, they won't. What's worse is that now we don't have anything else to plug the leaks with, short of complete decimation of local aid.

But that's not the way the State Senate is presenting it.

The State Senators are singing their own praises wildly, gushing with Orwellian double-speak. At their helm is Sen. Malcolm Smith, who described the Senate's month long orgy of ineptitude over the budget as "deliberation." He had the gumption to spin their political cowardice and cheap appeasement into "responsibility."

Smith effused, "Throughout this budget, we held true to the principle of cutting with care. This budget achieves those goals and puts New York back on sound fiscal footing."

I wonder what he meant by, "sound fiscal footing." Shouldn't he modify that with "for the next couple months?" The Senate's DRP is largely comprised of non-recurring cuts and cuts from local assistance that were expected regardless of the surprise deficit crisis. Our state continues to spend more than it makes, and is on track to increase spending by 37% over the next for years, alongside a 3% revenue increase.

This structural instability is the real issue at hand, an issue that the Senators refuse to acknowledge.

Pernicious Pedro Espada, famed party betrayer and alleged embezzler, glibly politicized and distorted the fiscally progressive nature of the cuts with his political Eddie Haskel act: "We had to be responsible and deliberative with this DRP, making sure we didn't continue to burden people already hit the hardest by this economic recession -- the poor, the elderly, and working families. We were able to achieve that goal with minimal reductions in healthcare and completely averting mid-year cuts to school aid."

I have a hard time believing that Pedro Espada, who likely pockets state money headed for hospitals in the South Bronx, has a scrap of compassion lingering anywhere in his vicious little mind. What he's not saying is how pained those poor, elderly and working people will be when their social services are cut under unprecedented economic duress. What he's not saying, ultimately, is how the lobbies with the deepest pockets reaped the most benefit in the Senate's DRP.

Take the optimistically forecasted 200 million dollar revenue boost they listed from the "VLT Franchise Payment," a Senatorial nod to the gaming industry, which allows them to install and profit off of video gambling systems in the Aqueduct Race Track. The VLT program appears to be a pay-to-play, with the gaming industry donating over ten thousand dollars to Finance Chair Carl Kruger's war chest on its behalf. It doesn't seem like a viable revenue source while other gambling ventures in the state, like the OTB, have recently nosedived into bankruptcy.

Some groups were politically powerful enough to benefit by avoiding the axe of taxation. Albany has been bragging about the boom of the securities industry in New York State, with its combined $112 billion worth of bonuses, but not a single legislator has had the guts to go against our disproportionately wealthy financial sector to demand a tithe, or even a 5 percent tax of the bonuses (which would give our state more than enough money to bridge the deficit).

Maybe sometime next year, when we're forced to address the same fiduciary wounds that we just bandaged, we'll hold our representation accountable to correct a system that funds the private sector when they collapse, but let them reap perverse profits, unfettered, when our state is sinking.

For now, we New Yorkers have to press our local representation to clean up our messy, bloated form of management. Controller DiNapoli posted a video plea for more shared services, which is a thoughtful and realistic way to approach the budget now. The Times called for more streamlined government, less useless municipal government, which would also be cost-effective and non-dependent on the State Senate.

While these ideas are useful, and should be taken seriously, New York will continue to suffer, continue to hobble on, injured and inefficient, as long as it has a political system that harbors opportunists and hustlers like Carl Kruger and Pedro Espada in its chambers. We were brought here by an intrinsic flaw in the makeup of our state: we often appease the loudest and least responsible voice in our government because. This time, like so many times before, that voice came from the Senate's chambers.

How can we change the tone of the public conversation on Albany from resignation to righteous indignation? What can we do to hold our legislators accountable?