Face the truth on finances to unchain the future

David Paterson is the most unpopular governor in our lifetime. He wasn’t elected to the job. He inherited a mess.

Our pages over the last several months have been filled with the repercussions of his decisions — from an announcement to close some state parks, including Thacher Park in our Helderbergs, to reducing state aid to our schools, causing massive cuts to jobs and programs.

The tendency among some of our letter writers and some of those who call and e-mail our news office is to rail against the governor, to blame him for the painful cuts, the lost programs and lost jobs.

But we see him more as a man who is willing to speak an unpopular truth. The state is broke, out of funds. Rather than borrowing, like his lieutenant governor has proposed, which could postpone the pain but may also prolong it, Paterson has consistently recommended the state live within its means.

When he took office in March two years ago, Paterson spoke in his inaugural address about the economic crisis the country was facing and said he would adjust New York’s budget accordingly.

From the time he became governor, Paterson warned citizens and lawmakers alike that New York was facing its worst fiscal crisis in decades. In his first summer as governor, he pointed out that the state budget deficit had risen over a billion dollars since he took office and he warned the deficit would grow by 22 percent by 2011.

Wall Street sputtered, the economy dragged. And his prophecy is coming true.

A year into being governor, Paterson took a 10-percent pay cut. That year, too, as the recession deepened, he joined with other governors, calling for a trillion dollars in federal aid to help states pay for welfare, infrastructure, and education. The national economy, though, was in the same shape as New York’s.

This past December, when Paterson announced his budget proposal, he said, “Wall Street, a pillar of New York’s economy, has suffered a series of unprecedented shocks. The financial services sector, which accounts for 20 percent of state tax revenues, may never be the same.”

Paterson went on to talk about the deep recession and job losses, stating his budget “begins the difficult process of fundamentally reevaluating both how we manage our government and what the state can afford to spend in a time of plummeting revenues. It seeks shared sacrifice from all New Yorkers and includes reductions across virtually every area of government.”

This March, when Paterson abruptly announced delays in school aid, he said, “The only way our State can put its long-term fiscal house in order is through significant, recurring spending reductions. In the short-term, however, plummeting revenues and record deficits have once again forced me to take extraordinary cash-management actions in order to ensure the continued orderly operation of our government.”

 “The state intends to meet the June 1 statutory deadline for making this payment,” the governor said in March, adding, “assuming sufficient cash is available at that time.”

It’s not clear now that the cash will be available.

This week, the lack of cash as the legislature is more than a month late in adopting a budget, has led to massive protests as the governor’s plan, backed by the legislature, authorized furloughed work days for thousands of state employees. Yesterday, a federal judge temporarily barred the furloughs.

Watching the angry protests, we recalled a mellow session in January where the governor spoke to a packed hall of new lawyers being admitted to the New York State Bar. He was there because a friend’s child was being admitted, and he did not use the occasion to make a political speech.

A law-school graduate himself, Paterson somehow got the room of attorneys and their proud families to laugh at a couple of outrageous lawyer jokes.

He went on to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln’s 1850 comment: If you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation.

“Truth is the basis for justice,” Paterson told the new lawyers. As governor, he said, he had learned, “When you tell the truth, people don’t want to hear it. Often people don’t like you.”

The heart of Paterson’s speech was a self-deprecating story about himself. He disagreed with Anthony Cardona, who hosted the ceremony as the presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Third Department. Cardona had quipped that the new lawyers could break their number-two pencils; the exams were over.

Paterson maintained that the real tests were just beginning.

He said he took the bar exam in 1983 and went to work in the Queens District Attorney’s Office. He described his first court experience, involving a mentally disabled man who was going to be sent to a psychiatric facility, to which both sides had agreed.

The defense counsel said the man had written a letter, which the judge wanted to read. After the judge looked at it, Paterson thought he should read the letter, too.

“The problem is, I couldn’t read the letter,” said Paterson, who is blind. “They didn’t really know that,” he said of the others in the courtroom. The letter was brought to him, and he feigned reading it, holding it close.

When the letter was taken from him after a few seconds, Paterson said, “I snatched it back.” He looked at it for another while.

Finally, the clerk told him that the man had written a full page of just Gs.

From the bench, the judge commented, “What’s even more puzzling than the letter is the profundity with which the prosecutor seems to understand it.”

As the crowd roared, Paterson smiled and said he felt at that moment like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. “I wanted to jump out the window,” he said.

We had laughed that day in January along with the governor, not at him.

And we have since reflected on the meaning of that story. We admire the governor for not pretending to see what isn’t there — a page full of dollar signs where really there is debt. Sure, it would be easier to pretend that the state could borrow its way out of debt. But it can’t.

“When you tell the truth,” the governor had said, “people don’t want to hear it. Often people don’t like you.”

Paterson, now has nothing to lose. With allegations surfacing in February that he was involved in witness tampering in a staffer’s domestic abuse case, and then in March that he lied under oath about free World Series tickets, he gave up his run for governor.

Paterson’s not a squeaky-clean hero, but he is a governor who continues to tell the truth about our economic plight. Most of us aren’t good at the “shared sacrifice” he has called for. It’s easier to find a scapegoat than to reevaluate and spend what we can afford. We only hope the legislature listens and acts accordingly.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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