Pataki’s Poppies

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Before you read on – click here to take a listen to an interview with Erika Rosenberg. She covered Albany government for Gannett News Service for years before returning to Rochester to keep an eye on the State Capitol as part of the Center for Governmental Research. This interview was done for WXXI’s Need to Know (Jan. 6).

George Pataki gives us another of his State of the State speeches – and once again the actress Margaret Hamilton jumps to mind.

You remember Hamilton – the 1939 artist behind one of the great celluloid villains… the Wicked Witch of the West. More specifically, I hear Pataki and I think of the witch peering through her crystal ball as the heroes of the Wizard of Oz come to the edge of the forest and see Oz itself. They must run through a field of flowers. Poppies.

"Poppies … poppies … " the witch hisses as she casts a spell. "Poppies will put them to sleep … sleep … now they’ll sleep."

Now Pataki’s speech doesn’t necessarily put you in need of a pillow. Instead the message is like all those pretty flowers in the field. And like Dorothy – we barely realize how we’re being lulled into this false sense of comfort. As if there are no problems in New York. Everything is just fine in upstate. Right? Sure.

So to look at this speech we’ll need a little help from Albany-watcher, Erika Rosenberg of the Center for Governmental Research… just so we don’t fall asleep in the field. Rosenberg calls his speeches "feel good, upbeat assessments of the state" and suggests that you take it with a grain of salt.

Good advice to follow for Pataki’s latest and last version. The 2006 model is clearly being showcased not just to a New York audience but to a national one. And yet there are small kernels of a message inside the grand fluff. Here’s but a few:

George’s Appeals to Conservative Nation, Part I – A nod to the death tax – Pataki brought out the laundry list of tax cuts in this latest version. But his repeal of the Estate Tax sounds so much like Inside-the-Beltway Republican rhetoric that it’s hard not to notice.

To be fair, Pataki has moved on the state’s Estate Tax before. He and the state legislature rolled back the so-called extra estate tax imposed on New York residents. But New York remains one of about 20 states that imposes some kind of state estate tax . (this link on Connecticut’s tax highlights those states who still have it in place)

Rosenberg said that in the five years she covered Albany she never remembered Pataki taking the time to mention a cut in the Estate Tax in his opening speech.

And she points out that Pataki’s litany of tax cuts in general is the "first salvo" in the battle to decide what to do with the first surplus the state has seen in awhile – roughly $2 billion. Use it to cut the state’s massive debt? Spend it on social programs? No. Pataki is clearly aiming the money for reducing the tax rates. That’ll play good in the nation’s heartland, no doubt (as long as they forget that New York remains one of the highest taxed states in the nation).

Pataki wanted us to hear about his about his "family friendly" tax policies. But that tax talk appears to get nearer to the national Republican family.

George Gets Medieval on Big Oil – Or so it would sound. Really, he called for New York to take the lead in breaking the dependence on foreign fuel – to free us from international regimes with oil reserves who might also sympathize with terrorists. This also sounds very national in scope.

He’ll do this in New York by making alternative fuels tax free. Hey, isn’t ethanol an alternative fuel? I’ll bet Iowa – the corn growing state that it is – would love a guy who talks about making grain-related products like ethanol tax free. Probably would be great for a presidential candidate to talk about in a state that acts as THE early bell-weather for the 2008 presidential race

Pataki also wants to put alternative fuel pumps at stations along the Thruway. To Rosenberg, it appears difficult for Pataki to achieve these grand plans. We’ll see if the follow-through follows the words.

Reform? What Reform – A year ago there were seven proposals to revamp the operation of state government contained in Pataki’s State of the State message. There was lobbying reform and clamping down on state authorities (Trust me, it’s there.. you have to go to the bottom of the text).

This year? Nothing.

In fact, what’s interesting is that he raised expanding a program that has come under scrutiny for needing reform – Empire Zones. He wants an Empire Zone in every county. This would allow for a more level playing field for counties in New York, supporters of such a move believe.

But just a few months earlier, Monroe County was complaining because of new rules that would tighten up the Empire Zones. This reform came after downstate Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (now an attorney general candidate) focused on Monroe County’s Empire Zone effort and complained that it was being misused.

So is the reform effort – born out of the Brennen Center for Justice report that called New York’s Legislature dysfunctional – dead? Sounds like it if you listen to Pataki.

But hey… as Rosenberg put it, the State of the State is really just like the first day of school. All the kids returning to class, showing off the new clothes mom and dad bought them. Then it’s business as usual.

Now we need the budget message – a more realistic speech. Think of it like Glenda the Good Witch’s snow falling – that should shake all that poppy dust from our nostrils.

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