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New York Post

 

Eliot's Tough Talk

November 08, 2006

By E. J. McMahon

Will He Really Buck The Albany Status Quo?

BY winning nearly 70 percent of the vote in yesterday's election, Eliot Spitzer set a new record for a New York gubernatorial candidate.

The old record of 65 percent was held by Mario Cuomo, with whom Gov.-elect Spitzer would no doubt prefer to avoid any further comparison. After all, the last Democratic occupant of the Executive Mansion ended up spending, borrowing and taxing his way out to ignominious defeat in 1994

On dollars-and-cents issues, Spitzer has tended to sound much more like another former Democratic governor - Cuomo's predecessor, Hugh Carey. From 1975 to 1983, Carey tackled a fiscal crisis, held the line on state spending and initiated some of the biggest tax cuts in New York history.

Throughout his campaign, Spitzer repeatedly zeroed in on the Capitol's fiscal excess. In his acceptance speech at May's nominating convention - the one famously promising that "on Day One of a Spitzer Administration, everything changes" - the first goal he cited was "a government that's open, accountable and ready to get taxes and spending under control."

"That means no more irresponsible spending of money we don't have," he said.

All along, Spitzer's tone on fiscal issues has been consistently tough and tight-fisted:

* He blasted New York's "bloated, wasteful, secretive state authorities," comparing them to "Enron's off-balance sheet partnerships."

* He assailed Republican Gov. Pataki and the Legislature for passing a "faith-based budget" that "takes on faith that the state will have dramatic revenue growth in the coming years that bring the out-years of the budget into balance."

* He said Pataki's statutory curbs on state borrowing were a failure and should be superseded by a constitutional debt reform amendment.

* He warned that the Legislature's proposed 2005 "budget reform" amendment would "lead to more spending and weaken the power of the executive branch to respond to crisis."

George Pataki, the self-styled fiscal conservative and tax-cutter, was never willing to make a read-my-lips promise not to hike state taxes. But Spitzer, goaded by Republican opponent John Faso, did it twice.

"We will not raise taxes," the attorney general told a gathering of business leaders in September. And in his most memorable campaign ad, after promising to "raise the standards of fiscal responsibility by cutting . . . billions in waste," Spitzer added: "Oh, there's one thing we're not going to raise - your taxes. And you can take that to the bank."

In style and substance, Spitzer's rhetoric underscored the no-nonsense persona he cultivated in two terms as attorney general.

It all obviously resonated with New York voters - who, in a September New York Times poll, identified "taxes" more frequently than any other issue as a problem they want the next governor to tackle.

But Spitzer's campaign positions were also fraught with potential contradictions and inconsistencies. The same candidate who promised to keep spending under control also pledged to "fully fund" a public-education sector that's already wallowing in cash. He called for adding another 500,000 children to the Medicaid rolls. He proposed a billion-dollar bond issue to sponsor stem-cell research. And while attacking the Capitol's pay-to-play culture, he left himself open to criticism by accepting campaign contributions from a casino developer linked to an out-of-state Indian tribe.

For all the talk of change, Spitzer's biggest and most explicit campaign proposal was a major expansion of Pataki's pride and joy - the School Tax Relief (STAR) program.

But STAR is a tax shift masquerading as a tax cut - a vintage Albany-style bait-and-switch. While seeming to reduce the burden on homeowners in the short term, it has the documented long-term effect of promoting faster growth in school spending and property taxes. Spitzer's new wrinkle - "means testing" the added STAR tax subsidy - won't change that.

Faso favored linking STAR to a cap on property-tax rates - a concept New Jersey's Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine embraced under similar circumstances. Spitzer, however, rejected a property-tax limit for New York.

Perhaps Spitzer's seeming embrace of expansive education and health-care spending was mere political pragmatism - carefully couched appeals to his partisan base that avoided specific promises of big new budget appropriations.

His words on taxing and spending are much less open to interpretation. But, sooner or later, that commitment to controlling the state budget will bring the new governor into direct conflict with the labor unions, "advocates" and other special-interest groups that were well represented at last night's Spitzer-Paterson victory party. The same groups have long bankrolled state Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats.

Does Spitzer really mean to challenge the Albany status quo? Can he pull it off? New Yorkers will know soon enough. The anti-climatic campaign is finally over - and "Day One" is now 53 days away.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/11082006/postopinion/opedcolumnists/eliots_tough_talk_opedcolumnists_e_j__mcmahon.htm

 

 
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