Gov. Eliot Spitzer seemed to be in several states during his second annual state-of-the -state message last week.
The state of denial. ("We came together to produce real change where progress had eluded the state for years.")
The state of delusion. ("We not only held the line on taxes, we cut them.")
The state of suspended animation. ("On one hand, we can't abandon our ambition to pursue our goals at full throttle. On the other, we must adapt to the fiscal realities that are now upon us.")
What he didn't provide during his speech was a state of hope -- hope that New York's real problems will get solved this legislative session.
The governor's annual address did provide some worthy initiatives -- including one for more investment in upstate New York and a plan to pump more money into the state's university system to boost economic investment. But none of it seemed to come together in any cogent package to get at the root of the state's serious financial problems.
For instance, for all the governor's talk about providing taxpayers with relief from high taxes, he didn't really come up with any legitimate proposals for cutting taxes, aside from creating an unnecessary commission to study them.
In fact, the governor has proposed more than $5.6 billion in new spending to go along with the state's estimated $4.8 billion budget deficit. In his address, the governor proposed a $1 billion upstate revitalization fund, a $400 million housing opportunity fund, $100 million for parks, spending $400 million to bump up the state and city university faculty by 2,000 instructors, fully funding the expansion of the child health insurance plan, offering grants for doctors who relocate to rural areas,
We're not mathematicians here, but how does a government spend more money and operate with a deficit, while at the same time rein in taxes?
Where are the demands for belt-tightening? Where is the urgency for real solutions? Why isn't New
York's fiscal crisis, second only in the nation to California's, being treated with the same degree of concern? Where is the warning to lawmakers not to add even more to the budget. Why didn't our governor use his platform to challenge every government body in the state to find 10 percent fat in their budgets? Is there not 10 percent fat in every government budget?
Add to the governor's excessive spending proposals the state comptroller's dire projections for slower-than-expected growth in revenue due to lower corporate profits, the continued reliance on debt ($51 billion in the current fiscal year), the growing reliance on one-shot revenues to balance the budget ($19 billion), and higher projected spending for Medicaid, public assistance and education.
The bipartisan commission to study taxes -- which sounds like a good idea -- is really just a way for the governor to put off tough decisions on taxes to another time. What's needed isn't another layer of bureaucracy, but better use of the bureaucracy we already have.
For instance, the commission, Spitzer said, would examine unfunded mandates to schools and municipalities. Is that a mystery to anyone? Ask your local government and schools officials which unfunded mandates are killing them, and they won't need a commission to give you a whole list of answers. The commission will also look at ways of getting the most effective value from education at the lowest cost. What are our state Education Department and thousands of local school boards doing with their time, if not that? Thirdly, the commission would study a property tax cap. A tax cap's a great idea, but you can't cap taxes without capping spending.
Yes, Governor Steamroller did adopt a more conciliatory tone toward the Legislature in his speech. But really, what choice did he have? Faced with an ice-cold dose of reality during his first year in office, he had no other recourse but to tone down his tough talk if he planned to get anything done.
There were some positive elements of his state of the state speech. Reducing energy costs. Continuing to root out fraud. Promoting technology and education. But we'd like to know more about how his proposed investments (spending) will create tangible benefits in attracting new businesses and boosting the economies of upstate cities. And we'd like to see more emphasis on reducing the state's growing debt burden, and more attention given to reducing costly state mandates. And there needs to be more of a focus on eliminating costly "member items" that eat up million of tax dollars.
For the most part, this was an election-year speech in a non-election year. It was full of ideas and platitudes, but not a lot of hard solutions.
The state of New York state is still miserable, and there's no reason to believe it's going to get much better any time soon.