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State’s in crisis? So what’s new?


HEY, IT’S ONLY three-quarters of a million dollars, and we’ll get it back eventually, right? The money in question is the amount of state aid payments Governor Paterson has ordered withheld from Columbia County… so far.

The money comes from schools ($310,418), the City of Hudson ($141,495) and county government ($323,000), according to figures compiled by the Times Union newspaper in Albany. The governor says he must delay these payments because the state lacks the cash to meet its most pressing debts this month. The legislature came back to the capitol in Albany a few weeks ago and trimmed the state budget by $2.8 billion, but the governor warned at the time it was a billion dollars short, give or take; it turns out he was right.

As governor, Mr. Paterson does not have the constitutional power to borrow that kind of money–undoubtedly a good thing in this state–nor does he have the authority to unilaterally cut expenditures approved by the legislature. He can’t sign bad checks, either.

These restrictions appear to mean that despite the delay the state may eventually have to release the payments next year, possibly when the governor discovers that, miraculously, he holds the only winning ticket to the biggest New York state lottery jackpot ever. Not possible? This state sold itself a prison and a highway in shell games that helped resolve past budget crises.

Here’s another scenario: The legislature may simply pretend that it can’t do anything about mean old David Paterson. Don’t be surprised if the leaders of the state Senate and the Assembly let the governor’s “temporary” delays become permanent and then try to blame the whole mess on Mr. Paterson. It would certainly fit their pattern of misbehavior.

The delayed (or cut) payments will have little immediate impact here. The county, the City of Hudson and most, if not all, the six school districts in the county have adequate reserve funds to see them through the short term. That may be exactly what legislative leaders are counting on to cushion the impact of this crisis, hoping that voters will forget about their irresponsible inaction next November, when all seats in the legislature as well as the governor and other top state officials are up for election.

There’s something deeply insulting about the state’s decision that aid promised to local governments and school districts should be diverted to pay other creditors. In essence, the state is borrowing from local governmental units to make ends meet in Albany. The failure of the legislature to craft a balanced budget has forced the governor to take out a loan paid for from local taxes already collected. The state is saying, in effect, that the bills it must pay have a higher priority than the obligations of school districts, the city and the county.

Outcries in the past have often focused on “unfunded mandates”–requirements the state places on local governments and school districts without providing the money to pay for them. But this time the state has gone one step further by imposing a “fund-sucking mandate.”

The state promised to pay $775,000 more than it has delivered for various local programs. If those funds are permanently diverted or if the full payment comes so late that local governments have to borrow to make up for the delayed funds or, worse still, if people lose their jobs because of the state’s dysfunction, those who can still afford to pay local taxes will face a higher burden with no one but the governor having decided that should happen.

For all these gripes, the fault does not lie with Mr. Paterson. A Democrat, he is at odds with the leaders of his own party who have control of a hopelessly compromised Senate and an Assembly that shows no allegiance to, nor interest in, anything but its urban power base.

It’s possible that tax revenues from a resurgent Wall Street will shore up state finances yet again. And when money from the wealthy flows in once more, average taxpayers may forget about the morally and ethically corrupt system festering in Albany, at least until the next fiscal disaster erupts. If that’s how this crisis plays out, we ought not attribute all the blame to our politicians. A major cause of the problem stares back at us whenever we look in the mirror.  

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