It’s hard to imagine a worse time for a governor to lapse into lazy lies. But with the state in its most troubled fiscal condition in decades, facing daunting deficits, David Paterson has become all spin all the time, putting his own concocted narrative ahead of the state’s need for crisis credibility.
Paterson’s current TV ad and his Monday joint legislative session speech, like his Meet the Press appearance a few weeks back, are rooted in flimsy falsehood. “Some say I shouldn’t be running for governor,” a resolute Paterson says in this ongoing, multi-million-dollar, advertising campaign. “Legislators said that when I forced them to close $30 billion of deficits.” Paterson wanted to exploit the same hyperventilating number in his speech at the emergency session this week, but telling the legislators sitting in front of him that he “forced” them to do their fiscal duty would be both rude and laughable, so he rephrased it: “In the last 18 months, we have been forced to close $30 billion of deficits.”
In fact, as phony as this $30 billion self-serving pat of the back is, it was even more dishonest when he debuted it September 27 on Meet the Press.
“I’ve had to reduce spending by $30 billion in 18 months as governor,” Paterson declared to a vast national audience, though just about everyone back home knew that he’d approved more new taxes and budgetary gimmicks than he’d cut real expenditures. Paterson actually used this $30 billion in supposed cuts a couple more times that Sunday morning in the national spotlight, and has been repeating it in one form or another ever since, immunized from media contradiction by low expectations and his own presumed irrelevance. But now that he’s made it his mantra for re-election, let’s listen to his own budget office take it apart.
Matt Anderson, a spokesman for the budget division, broke down what he said was $29.5 billion in gap-closing steps taken since April 2008, shortly after Paterson replaced Eliot Spitzer. The $6.2 billion in stimulus aid on Anderson’s list is hardly something Paterson did. Most of Anderson’s $7.7 billion in new revenue and taxes, starting with the so-called “millionaires” tax, originated with the Legislature. Indeed, it was Paterson who was “forced” by Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver to accept this tax hike, by far the biggest he’s done (“taxing the rich,” the recalcitrant governor said shortly before collapsing, “is compounding the problem”). And no governor has to horsewhip legislators to do one-shots, the $3.5 billion in “non-recurring actions” that Anderson listed, like accelerating the prepayment of business taxes or siphoning off hundreds of millions in Power Authority resources. In fact, one-shots, which only plug a hole for a moment, are what the senate Democrats are proposing to do now, to the chagrin of Paterson and virtually every editorial board in the state.
Anderson also broke the $30 billion down by laying claim to the $5.2 billion deficit plan in the 2008-2009 budget, which produced an additional $2 billion benefit this year, adding up to $7.2 billion. The Times’ Danny Hakim, however, reported that April that Paterson, who’d just been sworn in as governor three weeks earlier, alternated between being “a phantom presence” and a “bystander.” He was actually at Shea Stadium when the legislative leaders were “completing the deal,” reported the Times. Paterson said then that there was “little he could do since the framework was developed under his predecessor Spitzer,” Haikim wrote, and he was “sharply critical of it.” Of course that was before Paterson decided he needed its numbers to get to his $30 billion hoax.
The other part of Paterson’s mantra, which he threw out on MSNBC’s Morning Joe recently, is that the state “has balanced two state budgets on time in the middle of a recession,” which, if it were true, would obviate the need for a special session this week. In fact, Anderson’s list takes credit for $5.2 billion in deficit reductions that have occurred in the middle of budget years precisely because revenue and expenditure estimates undergirding the approved budgets so understated the problem. Paterson does deserve credit for recognizing shortfalls in mid-year, just as he is now. But this is a strength that is simultaneously a weakness. He gets rolled by a reckless legislature in April only to shake his finger at them in a special session like the one he just called, or the one he pulled together in August 2008, or he just unilaterally imposes across-the-board agency cuts, which he’s also done twice. Neither budget was balanced when he approved them.
The deceptions don’t stop with the $30 billion fiction. Paterson is right that the senate majority is stonewalling the fiscal reality we are now facing, but Paterson took months to get them back to session, and so far hasn’t been able to get the majority he helped elect to sober up. Yet, in that Meet the Press showcase, he appeared to claim that when he was senate minority leader nearly four years ago, “we won eight seats in four years and won the majority,” doubling the seats he gained and even getting his own biography wrong.
The gross misstatements are now even extending across state borders, with him telling Morning Joe that 25 states have, unlike New York, “completely abolished their early childhood/pre-kindergarten programs,” when none have. He used 21 states on Meet the Press and 26 in his speech, but AP reported in late October that Ohio “cut more funding for its preschool funding than any other state,” and even there, less than 4,500 kids wound up without services, a universe short of abolition. Paterson also told Joe Scarborough in his pre emergency-session appearance that New York’s millionaires tax was producing half a billion less in revenue than the $4 billion that was anticipated because “a lot of them changed their address and moved out state,” turning himself into an echo chamber for Rush Limbaugh, who said that’s what he would do.
But Anderson told the Voice that the budget’s division revised its estimate because Wall Street bonuses are down, and high earners are either unemployed or aren’t making as much money. Wages fell 15 percent in the first quarter of 2009, the biggest drop in the 34-year history of this data. No one has any evidence that the tax hike drove high earners elsewhere.
It’s not as if Paterson hasn’t pushed some real expenditure reductions over the year and a half he’s been in office, and it’s not as if he hasn’t contributed to the closing of vast gaps, but his $30 billion claim, especially the way he’s variously phrased it, is hot air at a time when a cool hand is needed. Turning it into a commercial call for re-election when he should be focused on crisis management proves the opposite of what the ad says: he’s putting his own interests first, even in the aftermath of an election when his party took a beating across the state.
Paterson spent election night at Bill Thompson’s headquarters and was so elated by how Thompson beat the polls that he decided to see himself in Thompson, another indication that all he sees is skin color (what else do he and Thompson have in common?). Most analysts watching returns read them as an anti-incumbent storm sweeping the state. Only the incumbent with the worst numbers in state history walked out on the balcony and waved. Gloriously.
Research assistance: Steve P. Ercolani, Aaron Howell, L.C.E. Jordan, Kate Rose, Amanda Sakuma, and Grace Smith