CRISIS PUTS NY IN 'SELL' HELL
July 30, 2008 --
ALBANY - Warning of an approaching economic calamity, Gov. Paterson yesterday called an emergency session of the state Legislature - and raised the specter that New York may have to sell off roads, bridges and tunnels to close a massive budget deficit.
In a rare televised address, the Democratic governor cited "private-public partnerships" involving the sale of state assets - widely condemned by critics as fiscal gimmickry - as one way to stem a tide of red ink brought on by the sagging economy and woes on Wall Street.
"We can't wait and hope that this problem will resolve itself," Paterson said. "These times call for action, and today I promise you there will be action."
Profit-tax collections from the state's 16 biggest banks, which were at $173 million in June 2007, fell to $5 million last month, Paterson noted. That's a shocking 97 percent plunge.
But the governor's five-minute speech offered few specific solutions to a three-year budget deficit. The gap has ballooned to $26.2 billion from $21.5 billion - a whopping 22 percent increase - in just 90 days.
Next year alone, the state expects to face a budget deficit of $6.4 billion, up from a projection in March of $5 billion.
Paterson promised to examine ways to trim the state work force and consider deeper budget cuts beyond the 3.3 percent he ordered after taking office this spring.
"We're going to end the legislators' vacations and bring them back to Albany to reprioritize the way we manage New York state's finances," he said.
Paterson said he would ask lawmakers during the session on Aug. 19 to take up his proposal to cap school property taxes at 4 percent a year.
In a nod to the tax cap's chief opponent, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), the governor also promised action on Silver's pet proposal to increase home-heating subsidies.
But Silver reacted coolly.
"If it is our intention to ask working families to shoulder the burden of these cuts, we must ensure that our most affluent citizens share that burden," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-LI) cautioned Paterson that any cuts to school funding were off the table.
The "sale" of state assets has been tried in the past during difficult economic times and has been met with condemnation from budget watchdogs.
The most famous - or infamous - example: former Gov. Mario Cuomo's sale of Attica prison to a semi-independent state agency in 1991 to raise $200 million. Many critics noted that the bond sale cost the state hundreds of millions extra over the next few years.
"One gets a little concerned when 'selling off state assets' and 'budget deficits' get mentioned in the same sentence," said Elizabeth Lynam, a state policy expert with the Citizens Budget Commission.
"If it's used to close a budget gap, it's a one-shot. It's doesn't help you in the long run. It's a fiscal gimmick."
Mayor Bloomberg last night praised Paterson's effort "to tackle the serious problems we face" this year.
"The governor demonstrated that he is ready to stand up to the interest groups that will no doubt protest before the State House, just as they took to the steps of City Hall earlier this year," Bloomberg said.