Among the things New Yorkers will really need over the next four years is a city controller who’s willing to be a forceful and effective watchdog and advocate for taxpayers. Unfortunately, personal peccadilloes aside, Eliot Spitzer’s record as governor of New York raises serious questions of his suitability for this particular job.
During his brief tenure in the state’s highest and most powerful office, Spitzer made enormous spending commitments that proved to be unsustainable, laying the groundwork for a massive budget gap once the economy imploded.
He rewarded his public-sector labor allies by expanding the state payroll and unionizing 60,000 home-based day care providers — over the objections of Mayor Bloomberg, who was stuck with part of the bill.
And even before his shocking resignation, Spitzer’s credibility and effectiveness in Albany had been badly frayed.
Few politicians have fallen so far, so fast, after such a seemingly promising start. Spitzer, remember, was swept into office by a record plurality after promising to take firm control of a state government that seemed, among other things, to have lost all fiscal discipline. During Republican Gov. George Pataki’s five last years in office, state spending rose by 40%, including an 11% spending increase enacted by the Legislature over Pataki’s veto in the spring of 2006.
Echoing the fiscally conservative, pro-business themes of his gubernatorial campaign, Spitzer promised in his January 2007 State of the State message to “finally learn to say ‘no’ to budget requests we simply cannot afford.” Yet just a few weeks later, he unveiled a budget that was mainly a big “yes” to the status quo, including a further spending increase of nearly 8%.
The following year, in what proved to be his second and last budget, Spitzer proposed a still-unaffordable spending hike of more than 5%, along with over $1 billion in higher taxes and fees to pay for it. His hapless successor, Gov. David Paterson, was left to deal with the consequences: a budget gap of $14 billion once the recession hit.
To be sure, Spitzer scored a few wins as governor — including a doubling in the number of charter schools. On the whole, however, he talked a better game than he proved able to play.
In interviews Monday to promote his last-minute bid to enter the controller’s race, Spitzer showed he hadn’t lost his ability to sound smarter than the average pol. With infectious enthusiasm, he called the office he seeks a “tremendous opportunity,” including a chance to move beyond “tedious and green eyeshade” financial audits to assess “whether the policies we are paying for are working.”
For example, he asked, “Are we getting the returns in terms of increased graduation rates, in terms of reading and math literacy that we are paying for in our school system?”
Good question. This sounded like the Gov. Spitzer of 2007, who tied a portion of his record school aid increase to a pay-for-performance initiative he called Contracts for Excellence, or C4E. Unfortunately, as education analyst Peter Meyer put it in a subsequent report for the Empire Center, C4E was “seriously hobbled by flaws in its assumptions about the mechanisms of reform, by misguided beliefs about ‘what works’ in achieving excellence, and by a compressed time line for adoption and implementation.”
Spitzer’s education program, and the money to fund it, all but vanished in the state fiscal crisis that his budgets did so much to create. And that points up an obvious concern: Governments don’t function effectively when they’re broke.
For that reason, a controller ultimately must take a big-picture approach to city finances — sounding the alarm when the city is moving too close to the edge of a fiscal cliff, as it may do sooner rather than later, depending on who is elected mayor. Is Spitzer really ready to take on such a “tedious and green eyeshade” responsibility?
McMahon is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and its Empire Center in Albany.
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