Ravitch, Albany's Cassandra, Warns: Time Is Running Out

He’s the man with experience. He has helped solve deep financial crises in the past. He believes he knows what has to be done.

But the powers that be in Albany, so far, are not listening to him. Lieutenant governor Richard Ravitch is frustrated and deeply troubled.

Ravitch reminds you of Cassandra in Greek mythology. Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy but then cursed her by decreeing that no one would ever believe her prophecies.

A New York Times story says that Ravitch, brought into state government by governor Paterson to try to introduce some sanity into Albany deliberations, has been left virtually on the sidelines as the governor and Republican and Democratic leaders bicker about what to do.

Ravitch is not complaining. Indeed, he told me that the democratic speaker of the assembly, Sheldon Silver, has been listening to what Ravitch has been urging. But the state senate is another matter. In that closely divided chamber, Republicans and Democrats seem unlikely to agree on any part of the drastic program Ravitch is recommending.

Ravitch, who was instrumental in alleviating New York City’s financial woes in the mid-1970’s, released a five year fiscal plan in March that called for the state to manage its budget under strict, tough accounting rules.

The state, Ravitch says, is facing a deficit of $9.2 billion this year and $15 billion next year. It’s a galloping deficit and so far the Legislature has not come to grips with it.

“We have two weeks to go,” Ravitch said until the Democratic state convention at the end of May. “If we don’t solve this problem in the next two weeks it will put us into June. By then it could be a lot worse.

 “We are on an unsustainable course. I would call it slow strangulation. In the past we were able to balance the budget with one-shot gimmicks like privatizing Blue Cross or securitizing tobacco revenues.

“But we’re in a different situation now. There’s been a basic change in the economy. The credit bubble exploded and the competition from places like Asia has had a disastrous effect on our economy.”

Ravitch is speaking daily to legislators, trying to convert them to his ideas. Few are ready, he said, to go to their constituents and tell them major cuts have to be made. Nor, he adds, are they prepared to face the state employees whose jobs are in jeopardy.

Years ago I heard governor Hugh Carey, urging an austerity budget, warn taxpayers that “The days of wine and roses are over.” He told them to brace for leaner times.

Unfortunately, it seems, there’s no one ready to preach that kind of sermon in the Albany of 2010. No one except Richard Ravitch, the lieutenant governor, who is trying to get the Legislature to face the crisis and make the massive cuts necessary to keep the state afloat.

Ravitch’s time is limited. He is the appointee of a lame duck governor. With the election of a new governor scheduled for this fall, one can wonder: will any would be governor have the courage to face the issues Ravitch has raised?

We can’t wait until 2011 for hard decisions to be made, tough actions to be taken.

Ravitch doesn’t want to be the Cassandra, he says. “It’s not fun.”

But, like it or not, he’s the only one making sense. As legislators fret about their chances of reelection -- with voters generally in a “let’s turn the rascals out” mood -- they would be wise not only to listen to this Cassandra but to act on what he says.

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