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December 21, 2008

Newsday
Opinion

Just take a deep breath
Special-interest howls over over Gov. Paterson's budget are a predictable response, and taxpayers should be getting tired of it

There's a saying that if you're always yelling, you're never yelling. If your pained expression is everyday behavior, how will people know when you're really hurting?

That's the question for the special interests that have responded, knee-jerk style, with criticism of Gov. David A. Paterson's budget proposal issued last week. School officials, public employee unions and health care organizations cried out the moment the big budget books landed on their desks. It's the same old refrain, it rings hollow, and taxpayers - who themselves are facing new fees and taxes - are losing patience.

How do we know that this is a false expression of pain? Mostly because, given the national recession and Wall Street meltdown, this budget is so mild. The governor isn't even recommending a decrease in spending. He proposed a $121 billion budget for 2009-10, which is a 1.1 percent increase over this year.

Second, Paterson has been telegraphing for weeks what this budget would contain. Last month, he suggested a mid-year trim of $139 million from Long Island school budgets. He pulled back, and this month, he's proposing a $157 million decrease, for the full school year beginning in September. Spread over an entire year, the cut is smaller.

His intentions have been so predictable that the health care lobby had TV attack ads ready to run the day after the budget was announced.

Paterson is walking a middle path. He has proposed incremental change, not a tsunami, in the hopes of working collaboratively with state legislators to pass a realistic budget. New York elected Gov. Tsunami in 2006, and it didn't work out. Eliot Spitzer burned through the goodwill of the State Legislature, his government partners, in a matter of weeks.

"The political reality is I can't box myself in, as other governors have, by abrogating to myself power that I don't have," Paterson told Newsday. "In New York, you need the cooperation of the Senate majority leader and the [Assembly] speaker. You can't bully the legislature."

Not having been elected governor, maybe Paterson has no choice but to stash the hammer in favor of a persuasive approach. Little else has worked for this famously unproductive state government.

Take school-aid cuts. The governor has held to the middle path by taking into consideration the wealth of each school district, as well as how many high-needs pupils it has. Reductions range along a sliding scale of 3 to 13 percent.

Yes, Long Island faces a bigger percentage decrease than other parts of the state. But this comes after a 42 percent rise in state school aid since 2003-04, and at a time when State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli reports that schools are sitting on $407 million in excess reserve fund balances - not unreserved "rainy day" funds, but employee benefit reserves.

School officials may howl about larger class sizes, but the world will not end if there are a couple more kids in a classroom. New York spends the most per pupil of any state. The only way to wring some economies out of the schools is to force tough choices.

Yes, Long Islanders will miss our STAR rebate checks, which were intended to provide property tax relief to the middle class. Those checks never resulted in lower taxes because schools just found new ways to spend money. Eliminating them will bring local pressure to consolidate services and look for savings. And the "basic" STAR program, for low-income and elderly residents, will remain in place.

In health care, similarly, budgeters have built nuance into the proposed spending decreases. Those facilities serving the poor will face smaller reductions.

Of the $4.1 billion to be raised from new and higher consumption taxes - on music downloads, sugary sodas, cigars and taxis - many would fall on people who have the means to pay. It's not so hard to do without the latest Hannah Montana release. But some measures, like taxing clothing under $110, merit another look.

Other revenue-raisers, such as the Bigger Better Bottle Bill, would target funds to fill in where the governor's budget proposes reductions. Some $118 million would be routed to the Environmental Protection Fund if that bill passes. This is a fair compromise, and it gives the legislature some options.

Paterson's budget would consolidate seven state agencies and form a task force to study merging more duplicative departments. It asks state workers to forgo a 3 percent pay increase and reduces the state payroll by 3,108, mostly by attrition. These are modest reforms, given the times, but the state Public Employees Federation is already trying to shout them down.

Reform of the public pension system, again, is sensible and a step in the right direction. Paterson wants to create a Tier 5 for newly hired state employees that would require them to pay 3 percent toward their retirement throughout their tenure, for example. This wouldn't take anything away from anyone who is already working; it's only for new employees. Currently, state workers contribute toward their retirement for only 10 years.

In the same fashion, upstate legislators are trying to prevent closure of nine prisons and youth detention facilities that are less than half full. The phrase "no brainer" was invented for this situation. If New York can't accomplish this, what chance do we have of making really difficult changes?

Everywhere you look, people are cutting back their spending to weather hard times. The special interests, and their lawmaker pals, need to quit the yelling and join them.

http://www.newsday.com/news/opinion/ny-vpbud215971819dec21,0,4109147.story


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