When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo phoned George Pataki on Oct. 2 to ask him to serve as co-chairman of a Tax Relief Commission, the former governor thought at first it was a wrong number.
That reaction is what the Irish literary giant James Joyce called an “epiphany” — a sudden and important manifestation or realization of the essential nature of a situation.
Pataki’s epiphany: He grasped that he’s an unlikely candidate to lead such a commission.
Why? For most of his three terms in office, Pataki was an unengaged lifestyle governor who governed by press release and gave away the store to keep the perks of office.
Granted, Pataki — who knocked out liberal icon Mario Cuomo in November 1994 — got off to a good start. Thanks to the skills and efforts of its brilliant budget director, Patricia Woodworth, the fledging administration struck a tax-cutting deal with Speaker Shelly Silver: The top income tax rate, which stood at 7.875 percent, was reduced to 7.59375 percent in 1995, 7.125 percent in 1996 and 6.85 in 1997. (The rate did go up to 7.7 percent in Pataki’s third term and Andrew Cuomo has since taken it up to 8.82 percent.)
After that 1995 victory, however, everything went downhill. Pataki abandoned his pledges to curb Medicare costs, unfunded state mandates, one-shot fiscal gimmicks, back-door borrowing and tax-and-fee increases.
While inflation during the Pataki years was up 39 percent, state spending increased 85 percent, from $62 billion to $115 billion. State-funded debt, meanwhile, grew from $28 billion to $51 billion, an 82 percent jump.
As a result of Pataki’s insouciant leadership, when he left office in 2006, New York had the highest state taxes per capita and the worst business-tax climate in the land, and the state was rated worst in the nation in the U.S. Index of Economic Freedom.
The New York Observer summed up the Pataki years as “a legacy of laziness, mediocrity, and pervasive neglect of the public interest, while creating a culture in which ethical corruption has become an acceptable way of life.”
Even the Republicans who jockeyed to succeed Pataki in 2006 were critical. William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts, contended that “New York spends excessively, borrows excessively and, of course, taxes excessively.”
Randy Daniels, who served as Pataki’s secretary of state, reminded voters that New York has “the highest combined state and local taxes in the country, the second-highest utility costs after Hawaii, some of the highest insurance rates, and an out-of-control Worker’s Compensation System.”
John Faso, a former minority leader of the New York Assembly and the eventual 2006 GOP gubernatorial nominee, told The Wall Street Journal that Pataki “lost his way on taxes and spending.”
So why does Cuomo turn to a predecessor who pandered to special interests and increased spending, taxes, and pork?
It gives him cover and makes him look open-minded and bipartisan. Also, the appointment neutralizes Pataki as a Cuomo critic.
Pataki’s acceptance, meanwhile, may increase government-related business for his low-profile environmental consulting firm, The Pataki-Cahill Group.
As a condition of sitting on the Tax Relief Commission, Cuomo’s Moreland Commission on Public Corruption should demand that Pataki disclose if the Pataki-Cahill Group has ever been retained by any state agencies — such as LIPA and the New York Power Authority — or agency vendors.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for that epiphany.
George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of N.Y. and N.J., is the author of The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact. He also is a columnist for TheCatholicThing.org and the Long Island Business News. Read more reports from George J. Marlin — Click Here Now.
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