Gov. David Paterson combines a welcome mixture of straight talk and optimism, but local budget writers must face up to the reality of making do with less state funding.


 

Less than a year after taking office — and what a year it has been — Gov. David Paterson continues to earn high marks for facing the state’s dire economic situation and choosing to deal with it. His first budget proposal, delivered more than a month before it was due, showed his determination to address the painful issues facing all of us.

His first State of the State address last week reinforced that position.

Paterson, since taking office in March, has shown himself to be something of a rarity among politicians: Someone who tells it like it is. It was his misfortune to have landed in the governor’s mansion when how “it” is isn’t good. But it may be New Yorkers’ fortune that he is there.

The state’s 55th governor seems to be taking a page from its 44th, a man who knew something about tough economic times himself: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In his State of the State, Paterson outlined vividly the state’s “perilous” condition but demonstrated optimism and leadership in offering strategies — admittedly, some light on specifics — to combat it. He combined talk of shared sacrifice with a reminder that “we should always keep our eyes on our brighter future.” It was a mixture of plain talk and optimism almost worthy of a fireside chat.

“Sobering, yet uplifting,” Assembly Speaker Sheldon called it.

And sacrifice there will be. Even as Paterson was speaking before a joint session of the Legislature at the state Capitol, teachers in the Marcus Whitman School District were learning that a dozen of their own will be out of jobs after this school year. Credit Whitman for planning ahead, bowing to reality and making difficult decisions. The district stands to lose 5 percent of its state aid — some $580,000 — next year and it is positioning itself to absorb that hit.

All school districts and municipalities — indeed any agency that subsists even in part on public funding — ought to be thinking the same way.

So should the special interests, like the state Civil Service Employees Association, which decries Paterson’s budget proposal as “unfair, unjust and unwise,” while offering not a single idea for closing the state’s immediate $15 billion deficit.

And it goes for the Legislature itself, which has amassed a record of incompetence over the past 40 years when it comes to crafting and adopting state budgets. Speaker Silver and new Senate Majority Leader Malcom Smith — especially Silver — need to shed the budget-larding negotiations of the past, special interests be damned.

That the old ways of politics must be abandoned was signaled by Paterson himself who, during last week’s speech, declined to lay any of the blame for the state’s fiscal situation on the 12-year administration of Gov. George Pataki. It was a gesture Pataki declined to make to his own predecessor.

Paterson’s speech was serious, but it wasn’t all gloom and doom.

Millions of upstaters were encouraged to hear him talk about sending more of our children to college, rebuilding roads and bridges, investing in clean water and wastewater treatment systems, creating a regional research consortium to make hybrid electric car batteries, and revitalizing our region in other ways. He also touched on improving medical care for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, a subject dear to the hearts of many in Canandaigua and beyond.

His calls to relieve state mandates and cap property taxes were certainly meant for upstate ears.
As the state embarks on its quadricentennial — marking 400 years since the voyages of Henry Hudson up that river and Samuel de Champlain on that lake — Paterson reminded us what we face, but also that we’re made of the stuff to face it.

This speech, delivered from memory for 63 minutes, and including economic data, scientific theory and historic dates without flaw, demonstrates the caliber of this leader.

Touring the state to listen, rather than to talk, is another measure of the man. He held the first of those sessions yesterday. He gets extra points for starting the tour in Watertown. Seriously, how many governors have even been to Watertown — in January?

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