Fiscal crisis gives Cuomo his chance to be a leader

Joan Baez used to sing, “If religion was a thing that money could buy, the rich would live and the poor would die.” In America, money is king. We could change Joan’s verse to, “If the poor would vote, they wouldn’t die (so soon).” In this country, it is the middle class that votes. By and large, the poor do not. Because there are too few very rich people to vote in large numbers, those in power court the middle class. It worked like a charm in the last election cycle.

On the other hand, President Barack Obama courageously put a lot of people into the health care system who had never been there before. These were mostly poor people. Oh, there were a few crumbs handed out to the middle class who were screaming, “When do we get ours?” They could, for example, put their post-graduate kids on their insurance policies for a little while longer. They still had to pay for it but at least their kids would be covered. Meanwhile, when they weren’t yelling about the deficit, the Republicans demanded that the richest in this country get a humongous tax break.

Back at the ranch, a Sunday lead story in The New York Times warned that the next sub-prime mortgage crisis — the long feared “second dip” in the economy — will come from the states and municipalities who will themselves go bankrupt or near broke because they are unable to pay back the money they borrowed. Since so many people have invested in buying safe state and municipal bonds, the results could cause chaos. Right now, some state pension funds are underfunded. Many bridges are in terrible condition, and our infrastructure needs are huge. If people lose faith in their state and local bonds and if the aforementioned Republicans at the federal level refuse to bail out the states, we could be looking at a situation that should raise goose bumps on anyone, particularly those who thought that investing in government bonds was a good, safe strategy.

It turns out that some states, like New York and Massachusetts, are in relatively good shape. Outgoing Governor Paterson was one of the first to warn everyone about the impending crisis. He yelled that the sky was falling and in this case, it was. He was willing to do battle with the state unions, hospitals and universities because he felt he had no choice. Next door in Massachusetts, the brilliant Deval Patrick managed to keep his state’s coffers in a relatively balanced condition. But in states like California and Arizona, chaos has reigned. Cost-cutting ideas that would have failed years ago are now being given top priority. Prisons are being closed. Some prisoners, we are told, are being released just a little too early for anyone’s comfort since the prisons do anything but rehabilitate. As a result, we are seeing scary trends in some crime rates, murder for instance.

Great leaders are defined by their ability to take us from a terrible situation to a better one. Without an emergency, a leader cannot be great. FDR had a war and a depression, Mario Cuomo had neither. Another governor, Hugh Carey, had no choice. He put the brakes on spending and though he is a fraud in many ways, he will be remembered by many as “The Man Who Saved New York” (at least for a while).

Now a strange coalition will emerge. The state Senate will revert to Republican control by a few votes. They will vote for cuts. The newly conservative and presidentially ambitious Andrew Cuomo will be governor and Sheldon Silver, one of the few voices for the have-nots, will go along with a new round of austerity. He will have no choice. He doesn’t have the political capital to buck the new governor with a reputation for past Machiavellian-type ruthlessness. Cuomo will certainly have no choice. He has made his deal with arch-conservative Rupert Murdoch and his journalistic henchmen. If he tries to show compassion, they will shoot him down with everything they have. He needn’t worry — events are playing out in his favor.

The unions will buy TV time and yell and scream, but the cupboard is bare and they’ll have to eat the cuts. Their leaders have little to worry about because those who are laid off won’t vote them out. Once they are out, those workers don’t get to vote. However, the devastation will be horrible. People will suffer. Retirement accounts will tank. The picture is anything but pretty. Look up, the sky is falling.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 12/6/10

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