David Paterson

State 'mandates' are like cockroaches: hard to kill

Newsday's editorial board frequently meets with people in public life: school superintendents, state and local elected officials, law-enforcement agents. And one question that comes up all the time is how to reduce the cost of public services.

It was an issue back when the only urgency was New York's position as No.1 or No.2 in the nation with the highest combined state and local tax burden - a "distinction" New York trades from year to year with New Jersey. Now, as the Great Recession has tightened the screws on public budgets everywhere, the question is more pointed: Which will it be, raise taxes or cut services?

Elected officials, candidates and community leaders usually don't want to choose between these unpopular alternatives. Sometimes they try a dodge: "Cut waste, fraud and abuse!" Hard to argue with that. No one ever campaigns for more inefficiency, dishonesty and corruption.

The other dodge - or at least that's how I thought of it until recently - was, "Cut unfunded mandates!"

"Mandates" come up often as the culprit forcing unnecessary costs on local governments and agencies - but ask for an example, and people have trouble responding. It's not that the problem doesn't exist; it's that it's so pervasive, and it's hard to know where to begin.

Mandates were once well-meaning state rules for how municipalities and school districts should do business. Now, the rules have hardened in concrete. They're bureaucracy; they're micromanagement. And, as of December, they're available in 40 pages of highly descriptive detail - 238 separate mandates - that a task force spent nearly a year compiling for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The report from the 2011 Mandate Relief Redesign Team lists burdensome rules and paperwork like a bundle of hard knots. Permit local governments to make discretionary purchases on public works projects up to $50,000, instead of $35,000. Reduce time-consuming requirements surrounding foster care reports, while still making them useful to the courts. Allow nursing homes to keep some records electronically.

Cuomo has highlighted mandate relief in two subsequent State of the State speeches - in 2011 and again early this month. In fact, he said pretty much the same thing both times: We need to fix the problem. He had to repeat himself because, while the redesign team did come up with a long list of mandates, it got very little relief accomplished.

Why? Well, first, the team of 27 - representing schools, municipalities, the State Legislature, business and civic organizations - had to agree on which mandates to relieve. The members came up with just $410 million worth - a small drop in a $132.5-billion state budget sea. Of that, the legislature wiped out just 22 mandates - for an estimated statewide savings this year of $125 million. State agencies can save another $40 million by rewriting regulations.

Mandate relief was supposed to ride a white horse to rescue municipalities and school districts from the tough new 2 percent cap on property tax growth they must begin living with this year; $165 million won't do it.

Rather than admitting defeat, the governor and State Legislature formed a Mandate Relief Council - 11 members, including state bureaucrats and legislators - to consider the other 216 mandates. Cause for optimism is slight.

Former Gov. David A. Paterson used to float an idea that all state rules should expire at a certain date unless legislators voted to keep them. That's drastic, but it may be New York's only real hope of undoing the knotty bureaucracy that yokes this tax burden to citizens' shoulders.

Essay first published in Newsday.

Poll: Paterson should stay on

It's official: Even with all the hijinks issuing from the Governor's Mansion, 68 percent of registered voters in New York want Gov. David Paterson to fill out his term, which lasts through the end of this year. I think this poll result speaks to how jaded we New Yorkers are. The Gray Lady and the city tabloids can harumph all they want about recent allegations -- that the governor covered up for a girlfriend-beating aide, that he asked the Yankees for free tickets to the World Series, that he steered a big state contract into the arms of his political supporters. This is all kid stuff for New Yorkers.

We want to see him deal with a really big job: closing a deal on a state budget that's $9 billion in the red.

'Gang of Three' split over same-sex marriage

People who are counting heads in the New York State Senate say that a vote to legalize same-sex marriage will be very close -- if the bill makes it to the floor at all. The issue was nearly considered last spring, just before the Senate Republican coup knocked all agendas off the table. Now, advocates led by the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) are prepping for a Nov. 10 special session of the legislature to try again. As I've said before, the vote could fill an important political need for Gov. David Paterson and anyone who wants to see him step aside in 2010, such as Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

ESPA won't say who among the state senators it is counting on its side. But two sources say that troubled Sen. Hiram Monserrate's name is in ESPA's "yes" column.

Monserrate -- a member of the senate's so-called "Gang of Three" rogue members -- hasn't said much publicly since a Queens judge concluded he was guilty of a violent misdemeanor assault on his girlfriend, and political folks began calling for his ouster. One of the people who rushed to Monserrate's rescue is Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., a minister who is practically a single-issue voter on the subject of same-sex marriage. He based his support for former Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith on a reported promise Smith made to block a marriage bill from coming to the senate floor.

The recent dynamics would appear to at least shift Monserrate's vote to the questionable column. Joshua Meltzer, an ESPA spokesman, says that although he can't talk about the senator's position, he would point to Sen. Pedro Espada as another 'Gang' member who has gone his own way to co-sponsor the marriage bill in the senate.

But I'm predicting that Monserrate will vote with Diaz in the end. With a special senate committee considering his fate, Monserrate is going to need every friend he can get on the inside.

Gay marriage as farewell

Gov. David Paterson's newfound energy to pass a same-sex marriage bill may look like a political resurgence. But in reality, it could serve as one of the final acts of his governorship. Since the Obama White House apparently conveyed its desire in mid-September that Paterson not run for governor in 2010, some Democrats have been searching for legacy accomplishments that would give Paterson a graceful exit.

Permitting gay marriage in New York is perfectly on point for this governor, considering his socially progressive past as the State Senate Minority Leader. He championed same-sex marriage then. Passing this legislation would restore New York, somewhat, to its glory days as a leader in social causes. Six other states have already passed similar measures. Seventh isn't first -- but it's better than never.

State Senate Democrats, in particular, have criticized Paterson for abandoning his progressive roots when he rose to governor. This legislation would help heal that fissure and begin writing a positive legacy for the governor.

NY Democrats' binary choice for governor

Nearly 72 percent of NY voters in a Siena Poll published this week said that they would prefer "someone else" in 2010 for governor over Gov. David Paterson. But people involved in politics in NY almost never ask themselves the question that way. They ask themselves, "Do I want David Paterson? Or do I want Andrew Cuomo?" At least for now, that's how the choice seems to break down. As attorney general, Cuomo has taken on so many high-profile battles -- and has even won a few -- that he's approaching that gold standard of politics: inevitability.

As NY Democrats try to decide who to support for governor -- a decision that will become more urgent after Election Day on Nov. 3 -- they're watching both men closely. Paterson met with his advisers on a recent Monday night, Oct. 12. They told him that the people close to him understand his strengths as a leader -- intelligence, consensus-building, fine oratorical skills -- but that the ectorate has not yet seen the real David Paterson. The way he ascended to the post, without a long race during which the public could vet him, is partly to blame. So is the global economic melt-down. With his approval rating at 19 percent, the advisers probably didn't have to work too hard to convince him to try something different.

Two days after that meeting, Paterson announced a plan to take on the $3 billion budget deficit. He has been aggressively making the rounds of radio and television shows to demonstrate his leadership. His appearance on NY1 this week was particularly memorable, as he berated "Saturday Night Live" for portraying him as a bumbler.

Many Democrats are rooting for Paterson behind the scenes. He's a "nice guy," but his ability to follow through with initiatives remains in question. In that sense, this recent call to cut the budget is a significant test, as is his proposal today to bring the issue of gay marriage to a vote by the end of the year.

"Nice guy" are not the first words people use to describe Andrew Cuomo. Many remember him as a campaign "enforcer" during the years his father, Mario Cuomo, was governor. I moved to NY in 2003 and did not personally witness those days. What I see now is an attorney general making good on campaign promises to clean up government. But he also pulls no punches with other leading Democrats who might be considered rivals -- or distractions on the march toward inevitability? -- people such as Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi and State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

Is Cuomo's hard-charging style evidence that the enforcer lives beneath the surface? Time will tell.

Now Charlie Rangel plays the race card

It's being reported today by Fox News that Rep. Charlie Rangel says "bias" and "prejudice" toward President Barack Obama is fueling opposition to health-care reform. I have no doubt that many of the same people who had hard feelings about Sen. Obama because of his race prior to the election still feel that way -- and they could be using the health-care debate as an opportunity to attack him. But portraying the opposition in simplistic racial terms stifles honest debate. With so many years in public life, Rangel ought to know better -- as should Gov. David Paterson, who made a similar statement last week. Here's what Rangel, the dean of the New York delegation, had to say:

"Some Americans have not gotten over the fact that Obama is president of the United States. They go to sleep wondering, 'How did this happen?' " Rangel (D-Manhattan) said Tuesday.

Speaking at a health-care forum in Washington Heights, Rangel said that when critics complain that Obama is "trying to interfere" with their lives by pushing for health-care reform, "then you know there's just a misunderstanding, a bias, a prejudice, an emotional feeling."

First of all, every president has detractors. No one is elected with 100 percent of the population voting for him. And the people who "lost" the presidential election always wait in the wings for a moment to pounce. It's been that way for as many presidential terms as I've witnessed. Calling it race prejudice doesn't make it so. Obama's detractors are motivated by many reasons, and just one of them is racial.

The other thing that bothers me is that now anyone who speaks out against health-care reform is presumably a racist, if we are to take Rangel's statement to its logical conclusion. Of course Rangel can't believe that. But people with a valid opposition to the president's plans may feel tarred by that brush for speaking up. What kind of way is that to run an important national discussion? Likewise, when Gov. Paterson accuses "some in the news media" of portraying him in a biased way, isn't he essentially telling them to shut up?

I remember when New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn -- an openly gay politician -- was first elected. I like and admire Quinn, but I also think she revels in being a very sharp political player. She cuts deals. Because I thought that was her calling card, I sometimes wrote about her that way.

One morning I received a call from one of her aides questioning my judgment. "You write about her in a way you don't write about anyone else," the aide said. I felt at that moment that I was being called a homophobe -- although Quinn's political moves, not her orientation, was what interested me. After that, I tried to avoid the issue altogether by writing about her less. But I don't think that served anyone well -- not me, and not Quinn, who after all is in politics. Politicians like attention.

I'm not sure it ever serves a debate well to question the other side's motivation. Although, it is a thriving practice in modern America.