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Only way out

After his meeting with legislative leaders a week ago to discuss the state’s budget mess, Gov. David Paterson was asked about his decision to shave off his mustache only weeks after getting rid of his beard.

According to published reports, the governor replied, "Additional deficit means additional cutting, and it’s likely before the end of this process you will see me bald."

Though beaten down in the polls, he obviously has not lost his sense of humor. Just as clear was his underlying message: New York’s mounting deficit is no joke.

At last week’s meeting, the governor said he expects the projected $2.1 billion shortfall for the rest of this fiscal year to reach $3 billion-possibly more.

A few days later, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli issued his annual report on the state’s fiscal health, which painted an even more sobering picture. Absent new steps to deal with the imbalance between revenue and spending, the state will roll up a cumulative gap of $38 billion through the 2012-13 fiscal year.

"New York needs a strong dose of fiscal discipline, which has been lacking for far too long," Mr. DiNapoli said. "The state must make difficult choices today to fix New York’s persistent budget troubles."

He was just as blunt about how the problem should be fixed: "The state must look to the spending side of the ledger, rather than raising taxes and issuing large amounts of debt to pay for things it cannot afford." 

To his credit, Mr. Paterson has said much the same thing. He has acknowledged that the strategy in this year’s budget of taxing the wealthy may have backfired and contributed to a decline in tax receipts.

The governor’s problem is the perception that he caved in the face of pressure from the Legislature on the current budget.

As this week’s RBJ Daily Report Snap Poll and similar surveys of public opinion indicate, Mr. Paterson’s approval rating is in a very deep hole. More than a few political observers think there is no way for him to climb out of it.

The odds do seem long. That said, his best chance-and perhaps the only one-is for the governor to demonstrate leadership and a very strong backbone in his deficit dealings with the Legislature.
 

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