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The City's Governor


The City's Governor

E. J. McMahon, E. J. McMahon August 7, 2005
Urban PolicyOther

WHEN George E. Pataki first became governor in 1994, he made much of his humble origins on a farm in a small Hudson River community. And based on the vote totals, a large majority of New York City residents apparently dismissed him as a country bumpkin—or, at best, a suburban arriviste. There's no way this barefoot boy from Peekskill could be good news for the city, they must have assumed. Well, they were in for some surprises.

During his tenure, Governor Pataki spent more days in his Manhattan office than did his Albany-centric predecessor, Mario Cuomo of Queens. And many, if not most, of his real accomplishments have been focused on New York City- usually resulting from effective partnerships with his pre-9/11 rival, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Through his control of the City University of New York's board of trustees, Mr. Pataki provided indispensable support for Mr. Giuliani's push to raise standards at CUNY. The governor also helped reform welfare, signaling his new approach by changing the name of the state Department of Social Services to the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. Mr. Pataki cooperated with Mr. Giuliani in anticipating the 1996 federal welfare changes and pulling off an incredible 60 percent reduction in the city's welfare rolls.

The Compstat crime-accountability revolution in city policing tactics was buttressed by Mr. Pataki's tougher state sentencing and parole policies. By completing Mr. Cuomo's prison construction spree, the governor ensured that criminals caught by New York cops would stay locked up for a long time.

And by leveraging state legislators' hunger for a pay raise in 1998, Mr. Pataki accomplished the previously unthinkable: a law allowing charter schools in the state. For the first time, parents with children stuck in some of the worst schools in New York City have publicly financed alternatives to the failed traditional system—a concept now embraced by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's administration.

Perhaps most important, Governor Pataki was a huge promoter of economic growth in the city. His state personal income and business tax cuts probably did more to improve the economy of greater New York than of any other region. The city also benefited from the Pataki-led cleanup of the mob-infested Javits Convention Center and reform of the state's balkanized economic development structure—especially the elimination of the Harlem Urban Development Corporation, which had been an obstacle to development in upper Manhattan.

But there is a flip side to these positives. The more the governor has sought to tailor his positions to New York City's voting blocs, the more he has actually hurt the city's interests. In crucial instances, he has sided with municipal unions against city taxpayers. The same goes for his costly political alliance with Dennis Rivera's health care workers union.

And as he approaches his final year in office, Mr. Pataki is leaving the city transit system with an enormous capital financing hangover from which it will not soon recover. His 1997 turnabout on renewal of the city's rent regulations was a huge missed opportunity to unleash market forces to solve New York's unending housing shortage.

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity school financing case has been another missed opportunity. Instead of using the court fight to spotlight the structural causes of school failure, like the teachers' contract, Governor Pataki embraced the discredited notion that more money is the cure for what ails the system. His response has boiled down to a same-but-less approach that, predictably, pleases no one.

And the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, touted by Mr. Pataki as an accomplishment, has in truth been an embarrassing muddle.

In the wake of his announcement that he won't be seeking a fourth term, Governor Pataki still has a little more than 16 months to serve. But even as a lame duck, he retains some significant power and leverage in Albany. Three priorities should be considered well within his reach:

• Raising the limit on the number of charter schools and amending the charter school financing formula to encourage more such schools in New York.

• Vetoing any effort by the city to raise its state-controlled income, business or sales taxes.

• Getting the ground zero rebuilding effort to move decisively forward.

If he can accomplish these things, Gov. George Pataki's legacy in New York City will on balance be a positive one.