David Paterson Vetoes His Way to Tabloid Glory


David Paterson would have you believe that he did the only responsible thing by vetoing almost 7,000 appropriation bills passed by his former Democratic colleagues in the Legislature. He is even taking a veto victory tour, sustained by the fact that the Republican minority in the State Senate, which he spent most of his career trying to defeat, now has his back and will kill an override.

Actually, only one other governor, South Carolina’s GOP headline grabber Mark Sanford, who at first rejected the stimulus money altogether, vetoed a budget because it lacked a contingency plan if the Medicaid funding dies. Paterson and Sanford will both soon depart office awash in personal scandal.

Twenty-four recently adopted state budgets did precisely what the one Paterson vetoed did. They assumed that the Congress would eventually pass a stalled Medicaid rescue bill. Only 15 states adopted budgets that didn’t contain that assumption. Eight states do budgets every two years, and Michigan, California and New York have yet to figure out which way to go. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed budgets predicated on the funding, as Paterson’s did until the governor ran away from this assumption just days before the celebrated vetoes.

Some states, like North Carolina and Massachusetts, wound up removing the assumption from their budgets at the last minute, as Paterson urged New York’s Legislature to do. But North Carolina substituted raids on its rainy day and disaster relief funds, reductions in its pension contributions and hikes in its lottery projections. Massachusetts adopted some of the same gimmicks, coupled with highly selective appropriation vetoes by Governor Deval Patrick (unlike Paterson’s), hardly a recipe for safe budgetary cooking.

Most Democratic and Republican legislatures and governors across the country, including New Jersey’s decidedly conservative Chris Christie, decided instead to stall crushing, countercyclical cuts until the fate of the Medicaid funding is clear, a decision that may raise legitimate questions but merits nothing like the tabloid ridicule that’s so tilted the debate in New York.

As Michael Leachman from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put it in a Voice interview: “Most states assume the Medicaid extension. If Congress doesn’t extend additional fiscal relief, most states will have to come back and face a shortfall in their ability to pay for their schools, healthcare and public safety.” Or as Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell explained yesterday on Morning Joe, using a slightly exaggerated number: “Thirty states put the extension in their budget, including Pennsylvania. If we lose it, it’s going to be a billion dollars we are going to have to cut from the budget.” Though Pat Buchanan was asking Rendell about the Medicaid funding, neither he nor anyone else questioned Rendell’s congenial and accepted explanation.

Joining these governors and legislators were many mayors of large cities, including Mike Bloomberg, whose fiscal probity was praised by the same editorial-page drumbeaters who pushed Paterson to veto a state budget that mimicked the city’s. The aid, which is designed to compensate for the rise in the Medicaid rolls spurred by the meltdown, passed both houses of Congress in different forms and is backed by the president, but so far hasn’t obtained a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate.

Paterson suddenly switched positions on the Medicaid money on June 27, promising to veto any legislative budget that did what his own budget, until then, formally proposed. “If they do not vote for a contingency way to address Medicaid if we don’t get it from the federal government,” Paterson declared, “I will veto every single appropriation.” He did this at virtually the same time that he reversed field on borrowing as well and said he opposed the proposal of his own Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch. And he did it while he was simultaneously threatening to shut down state government altogether if the legislature didn’t adopt a budget instantly.

All of this saber rattling earned him cheers like he’s never heard before from the tabloids, which conveniently failed to acknowledge how out of step he was with his prior statements or the actions simultaneously going on in similarly beleaguered states around the country. He is still saluted for inventing budget extenders backed by shutdown threats though that strategy pushed the legislature to adopt its own budget and is at least partly at fault for the current chaos.

Since we have held every other governor accountable for producing a budget agreement, isn’t Paterson himself responsible, after 100 days of delay, for today’s announcement that the state may run out of cash in a month and a half? Or will we allow him to continue to pose as an outsider, buffeted by the recklessness of others? Though it was Paterson who said, just days ago, that he was through negotiating with the Legislature, isn’t it bizarre that today he is reportedly ruminating about calling them back into session? No doubt this reversal, too, will be portrayed in the Post and Daily News as an act of continuing rectitude, without any reflection about the abrupt budgetary mood swings and posturing that have brought us to the latest precipice.

Paterson has discovered the ugly secret of New York politics — if a onetime liberal Democrat does everything rightwing editorial boards instruct him to do, he will be granted temporary immunity from their bannered bombast. Miraculously, the Post, which until recently dispatched reporters to restaurants and measured mansion closets in search of real-or-imagined Paterson hanky-panky, didn’t even cover the latest evidence of his cesspool government, namely that his once top aide, David Johnson, has taken the Fifth Amendment in two probes involving the paper’s momentary budget hero. Johnson was once a Post cover boy.

I write no brief for the Legislature. I’ve pummeled them more times than I have Paterson. But Paterson is now a mere tabloid and Republican tool, desperate for a legacy and a job in December. There is, for example, no left side of the radio talk show dial, where he has imagined himself landing for years. By vetoing all member items, he not only killed worthy programs but damaged the reelection prospects of Senate Democrats, who get far more of these funds than Republicans. He is all but sharing winks with his lifelong opponents who must retake the Senate this year or face a fair reapportionment that could cost them the majority far into the future.

Paterson is less a profile in courage than he is a puppet for pundits, in charge of Government by Tabloid, pushing a New York budget agenda no GOP governor has ever dared embrace.

Research assistance: Gavin Aronsen, Michael Cohen, Nicole Maffeo, Adam Schwartzman, Jenny Tai