When I first took office as a shiny new Assembly member four short years ago, Eliot Spitzer was the governor, David Paterson was the lieutenant governor, Alan Hevesi was the comptroller, Hillary Clinton was a United States senator and the state Senate was still led by Joe Bruno, who didn’t show the slightest likelihood of slowing down any time soon.
This all lasted about two years.
So who says nothing ever changes in Albany?
Not only did the faces of state leadership change dramatically, but so did the issues and challenges confronting us. On Jan. 1, 2007, we began the process of getting New York City its fair share of state education money after a 15-year lawsuit ended with a determination that New York City kids were being cheated out of the sound, basic education which our state constitution guarantees them. We challenged the Bush administration to support our efforts to provide healthcare coverage to every child in New York, and when the federal government balked we committed to meeting this objective with our own state resources.
But then Wall Street melted down in 2008, and with it so did our state (and city) finances. Traditionally, revenues from Wall Street accounted for approximately 20 percent of New York State’s budget. Add the human and economic toll of tremendous job losses, foreclosures and the loss of healthcare coverage to the mix, and the state very rapidly faced a serious financial situation requiring bold actions.
Spending was cut. Revenues were raised, particularly on those making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Efficiencies in government were found.
But we did not resort to gimmicks, as in decades past. We didn’t “sell” our state prisons for ready cash and then lease them back. (This is what Arizona did last year with its state capitol building.) We didn’t follow Hawaii’s lead in cutting the school week to four days, or California’s lead in issuing IOUs to vendors instead of checks. And let me say this proudly: Until the governor’s precipitous and heartless decision to fire hundreds of state workers just in time for Christmas this year, we managed our budget shortfalls without throwing our cops, teachers, firefighters or other public servants out of work and into foreclosure, eviction, meager unemployment insurance and insecurity.
What will the new year bring in state government? There will be substantial cuts to education and healthcare because, to borrow Willie Sutton’s answer when asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.” Government will be restructured further to squeeze out every last inefficiency.
Within these actions, however, there will be choices. Choices on which educational programs to cut, which to reform and which to preserve; which healthcare programs to trim and which to reshape; which economic development programs to fund and which to let die. These are big choices, and every New Yorker has a stake in our making the right ones.
But aside from anything else, let us hope the new year brings to state government at least this: the determination to confront our challenges head-on; an acknowledgement that the sacrifices which must be made must also be shared; a commitment to giving our children the greatest opportunities possible to succeed in the 21st-century workplace, above all else; and the conducting of the state’s business in a manner justifying the enormous trust and responsibility which the people of New York have placed in us.
A happy and healthy New Year to all.
Rory Lancman is New York state assemblyman for the 25th District in northern and central Queens.