How Pataki Won

Governor Strikes Strongman Pose, Wipes His Hands Clean

When Standard & Poor's downgraded the state's bonds from "stable" to "negative" last week, George Pataki was quick to blame it on the legislative budget he'd just unsuccessfully vetoed. In the coming months of continuing financial debacle, expect that to become a gubernatorial mantra.

Overridden again and again by unanimous votes in a senate controlled by his own party, Pataki has been widely depicted as an out-of-touch loser in the Great Budget War. But that assessment has one fatal flaw: It makes too much sense. The always on-message Pataki—despite how often he utterly reverses the message—is confident that he will emerge from this fiscally criminal fiasco of recurring multibillion-dollar gaps as the only perpetrator with an alibi. "I was out to lunch" is a better place to be, the governor clearly believes, than "I was at the table."

This is, after all, an era when a president can do a Top Gunlanding on an aircraft carrier, utterly confident that the national media will not even report that he went AWOL from his own Air National Guard duty during the Vietnam War. It's a time when Unreality TV News can suspend overnight its Hare Krishna-like repetition of a weapons-of-mass-destruction, war-justifying themeas if it never embraced the Bush canard. All Pataki needs in such a moment is a plausible-sounding artifice to escape responsibility—especially nationally, which is the only constituency he currently cares about—for a $12 billion hole he dug and tried to hide from view until he was re-elected.

He is ready now to take to the stump as the tax cutter who refused—in the face of union-contrived clamor—to hike them even though his own budget raised clothing and hospital taxes. He is positioned as the only man in Albany willing to cut waste, though his budget made no attempt to even locate it, indiscriminately slashing education and Medicaid without so much as a cursory attempt to identify lard. He is set to pin the inevitable deficits on the legislature though his own budget contained $4.2 billion in one-shot borrowing that would've left a hole of the same size next year. He will now become, in a paradox fit for the times, Albany's iron man of fiscal rectitude, refusing to spend some of the legislature's appropriations, scolding, suing, smirking.

It may take a governor to understand a governor, so listen to one. Mario Cuomo was lieutenant governor the last time a governor's budget was overridden, in 1982. After that, he did 12 executive budgets of his own that were affirmed by a legislature as divided by party as the current one. Asked by the Voice whether a governor truly trying to block a joint legislative budget would be best served by corralling enough individual legislators to prevent a veto override beforethose legislators actually voted for their budget rather than after, as Pataki did, Cuomo said: "Obviously, yes."

But Pataki, insists Cuomo, "never wanted his budget adopted" and "wanted to see his vetoes overridden.

"As a clever politician," Cuomo says of the man who beat him in 1994, "Pataki sought to work out a way where he wouldn't have to make the difficult judgments a governor has to make, like doing a budget. So he never did a real budget. He tried to put all the blame on the legislature. If they left it at his budget, the deficits into the future would be at least as large." Instead of proposing a budget, Cuomo says, Pataki merely adopted "a rhetorical position" designed to appeal to "Republican conservative dogmatists."

Fred Dicker, the New York Post's bureau chief in Albany, did a May 5 story naming 13 conservative Democratic assembly members "identified by Pataki's political advisers" who might then have been willing to vote to sustain the governor's vetoes. All Pataki had to do, the "insiders" told Dicker, was to swing four of them to stop the override, since all but one of the assembly's 47 Republicans were supporting the governor. Voice calls to the banner-headlined 13 could not turn up a single one who said that Pataki or his staff ever had called (several did not respond to inquiries).

Assemblyman Richard Smith from Erie County acknowledged that he was part of what he called "the Group of 13," a caucus of Democrats who "often stress independence from the Democratic majority." "But the administration did not contact us," Smith said. "If they had approached us about this, we had worked on the budget for about two months and there was not a 'For Sale' sign on my body." New Rochelle's Ronald Tocci said the same, as did aides to Robin Schimminger (Erie), Steve Levy (Suffolk), William Scarborough (Queens), and Syracuse's William Magnarelli.

Assemblywoman Joan Christensen, also of Syracuse, said: "The governor didn't call me. Or if he did, he didn't leave a message on my machine. Would it have made a difference? Not on the override. In fact, there is no exchange between the governor's office and my office. When I call there, which is not too often, I get referred and referred and referred." Not only did Staten Island's John Lavelle say he wasn't called, but he says he spoke "with all of the other 12 and none were contacted."

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