Paterson: It's Not About Me

$135 billion dollar budget now in the hands of a lame duck and a bunch of clowns

Monday, Mar 1, 2010  |  Updated 12:07 PM EDT
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<a title=Paterson swears he has never abused his office, "not now, not ever."" />

NBCNewYork

Paterson swears he has never abused his office, "not now, not ever."

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Days after he withdrew his candidacy for governor on the heels of a scandal involving one of his closest aides, David Paterson emphasized he owns the authority to govern and will use it, despite calls for his resignation.

The embattled governor also pulled back from David Johnson, the aide at the center of the investigation into why state troopers visited the home of his girlfriend, who filed a domestic violence complaint against him.

"This is a separate issue that really involves someone that worked for us and not me," Paterson said at a breakfast forum in Midtown this morning.

It was the governor's first public appearance since he announced the end of his campaign for a full-term as governor on Friday.

During his talk before about a hundred businesspeople, Paterson reiterated that he'll continue to serve the last days of his term.

"I have 306 days remaining in my term as governor," he said, "and in that time I pledge to fight just as hard for the people of New York as I have over the last two years, and to hopefully maintain the sovereignty of our economic condition."

Paterson says he ended the campaign to avoid the constant questioning about whether his actions are simply intended to raise his poll numbers. He noted some Democrats who called for his resignation last week have reconsidered, and described himself as victimized by an hysteria that has developed for months over rumors that he would step down.

"Going back over a month there have been hideous and unsubstantiated rumors where I've had to read what the speculation would be about, what the actual stories would be," Paterson said. "None of those stories, speculations, came to fruition."

Asked whether he believed he has the political authority to carry out the measures necessary to overcome the economic challenges that lie ahead, Paterson answered simply, "I have the authority."

"I'm the governor, that's why you invited me," he quipped.

Paterson may still have the title, but many question whether he has the power to overcome the dysfunction that is Albany.

Negotiations are supposed to begin in earnest this week among leaders for the state budget due in four weeks.

For New Yorkers, there is much at stake: Paterson's $135 billion budget proposes a $1 billion cut in school aid that would likely drive up some of the nation's highest property taxes; deep cuts in aid to New York City; closure of dozens of state parks and a few prisons, and increases for college tuition, among other actions.

Paterson also has pledged to stop the Legislature from raising spending and, possibly, state taxes. Worse, state revenues have slipped further since that budget proposal, bloating an $8 billion deficit.

"It's incredible," said E.J. McMahon of the fiscally conservative Manhattan Institute, and a former budgeteer for Republican Gov. George Pataki. Paterson "can only negotiate with people who don't want to negotiate with him and want him to go away."

Paterson, however, remains in a powerful position, compared with governors in most other states. Without his approval, the Legislature can now only subtract from his budget. If they want to add — and lawmakers always have — then they need him to budge. But he no longer needs to worry about what they want.

The thirst for a legacy as the governor who saved New York in a fiscal crisis could also preclude Paterson from making a move much of the Legislature wants: turning over budget negotiations to his lieutenant governor, the widely respected Richard Ravitch.

Those legislators, which include powerful Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Controller Thomas DiNapoli, cite a trait of Ravitch that is critical to negotiations: You can trust that what he says will stick, unlike with Paterson. Ravitch's skill and integrity were established in similar crises, including helping to save the New York City transit system. And Silver says he has a better relationship with lawmakers, who Paterson has blasted the last few months in an effort to boost his poll numbers.

"Dick has many talents," Silver told the Daily News. "He can be used effectively in dealing with the Legislature."

But there may be little motivation for lawmakers to make Ravitch look good because he chooses to have no political future after Dec. 31.

And Paterson alone has the power of the veto.

"That's his weapon," McMahon said. "He has actually made his vetoes stick. ... In terms of a veto, Paterson is in the strongest position of any governor since Gov. Hugh Carey" during the 1970s fiscal crisis.

That strength comes, oddly, from the Republican minority in the Senate. They are banking on reclaiming the majority in the fall elections by showing all-Democratic rule of Albany doesn't work.

Senate Republican spokesman John McArdle wouldn't comment on vetoes. He said his conference's hasn't changed its plan of cutting spending, preventing tax increases and increasing money for job creation.

The Senate's Democratic majority has its own agenda, and its own problems.

"The Senate majority will make the tough choices necessary to reverse decades of fiscal irresponsibility and get our economy working again," said Democratic spokesman Austin Shafran, taking a direct shot at the Republicans who held the majority until 2009.

The Senate majority, however, is weakened by the recent expulsion of a Democrat over his misdemeanor assault conviction, leaving Democrats with a 31-30 majority until a special election March 16. Until at least then, Democrats — even if they got all their members together — don't have the 32 votes needed to pass most legislation.

But many incumbent legislators are also worried about re-election in hard fiscal times. A state budget will have to be something conservatives, liberals, upstaters, downstaters and the many other factions can win on in November.

If there is no budget by April 1, the governor controls emergency spending bills.

"If the past is any guide, there's no reason to assume anyone is going to get along with anybody," Greenberg said.

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