Thursday, January 21, 2010

Opposing and governing

There's a great scene in the movie The American President. In the movie, the president character's main opponent always concludes his speeches with, "I'm Bob Rumsen and I want to be president." In one press conference, the president defiantly declares, "I'm Andrew Shepherd and I AM the president." I thought this little snipet illustrates the fundamental difference between opposing and governing, something certainly related to the course of New York state politics today.

Gov. Paterson presented his executive budget on Tuesday. In it, he proposed cuts to all areas, including the inevitable cuts to health and education (which make up a majority of all state spending).

Predictably, special interest groups fell over themselves explaining why they (hold hand over heart) understand the state's tough fiscal situation but that shouldn't stop the governor from exempting their worthy cause from the pain or at worst, from making sure their worthy cause is cut last and least of all. You don't need to be a math major to understand that if everything is exempt from cuts, then nothing will be cut.

Equally predictably, self-described fiscal conservative legislators from northern New York denounced the governor's plan to close three area prisons. They are afraid that it will harm the economy of the region and, shock of shocks, want downstate prisons closed instead. When they called for fiscal restraint, they meant for other regions, not theirs. It gives credence to the complaint of some that the bloated nature of the prison-industrial complex is not about the security of citizens but is a taxpayer-funded rural economic development program.

I don't buy it and neither does Bob at Planet Albany. He accurately describes Paterson's budget as 'necessary.' And he tells the governor's critics to put up or shut up.

The governor's critics, who are many, and potential opponents including Andrew Cuomo, should be required to provide specific alternatives that would actually make the numbers add up, he notes.

And he's right.

It's easy to offer broad platitudes and happy rhetoric from the cheap seats. And it's easy to be popular when your primary job is to sue the bad guys. But those with the ACTUAL RESPONSIBILITY TO GOVERN have to make specific choices. The differing fortunes of Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Governor Eliot Spitzer illustrates that. Governors and legislators don't have lawsuit or subpoena power to pass a responsible budget. It's easy to say "leave my pet cause alone." But in a fiscal crisis like the present one, everyone's pet cause should share the burden. No one should be exempt, least of all those who receive the greatest share of the public largesse.

Special interests groups have to advocate for their membership; it's their job. But legislators and the governor are responsible for representing the interests of ALL the people, not just the most well-funded groups with the most highly-paid lobbyists. They also have the unique responsibility to try to get the state's fiscal house in order, something the special interest groups aren't constitutionally required to consider. Unfortunately, only the governor seems to realize all this.

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