There was so much to admire about Governor Spitzer on display this week and so much to cause one to shake one's head in dismay over his weaknesses that it's hard to know where to begin. We found ourselves thinking of one of the testing moments encountered by another reformer, Mayor Bloomberg, when he tried in the city to ram through the idea of nonpartisan elections.
Everyone in town admired the idealism of Mr. Bloomberg 's motive, to bring voters to the polls and to broaden the number of people getting to decide who goes into the City Council. But to achieve those goals he plunged ahead with a plan to write out of the process the political parties that had been our country's longtime — and constitutionally protected — vehicles for doing the job. He met a humiliating defeat that he roundly deserved, only to bounce back in his admirable way.
In the same sense, millions of New Yorkers are rooting for Mr. Spitzer in his zeal to clean up Albany. New Yorkers want him to succeed. But no one expected that his first big move would be, in respect of choosing a new comptroller, to try to stick his nose into a decision that belongs entirely to a different branch of the state's government from the one the governor heads.
Or that after campaigning for office on a clean government ticket he would turn around and offer up, via his own vetting committee, as a candidate for comptroller one of his closest cronies, who is the partner of one of the bankrollers of his campaign, while pointedly excluding anyone from the pool of candidates favored by the legislators whose right and obligation under the law it is to choose the next comptroller.
This is the context in which the new governor is reported — by Fredric U. Dicker of the New York Post yesterday — to have berated the minority leader in the Assembly, James Tedisco, telling him, "I am a f---ing steamroller" who will, as Mr. Dicker paraphrased him, crush the Assembly and anyone else who stands in his way. It's hard to imagine that kind of language from such masters of gubernatorial executive power as Theodore Roosevelt, say, or FDR or Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Silver is said to favor Thomas DiNapoli, an assemblyman from Nassau County, and if Mr. Spitzer turns around and objects, Mr. Silver is going to be able to remind the governor that aside from it being none of the executive branch's business, Mr. DiNapoli was already offered a major executive branch position by Mr. Spitzer. One just has to shake one's head in wonder at how a man as brilliant as the governor has gotten himself in such a pickle.
It's all frustrating to friends of real reform, the more so because there is so much admirable in the budget the governor is going to be trying now to get through the same Assembly he has just alienated. The most important, by our lights, is the point of principle he has crossed with his proposal for what can be called a voucher concept that would offer a $1,000 tax deduction to parents who pay tuition at "public and nonpublic schools." It's modest, but it's a start.
The governor, according to a report in the New York Times, was met with gasps of disbelief and boos earlier this week when he mentioned in a speech at the state Education Department that he was going to raise the ceiling on charter schools to 250 from 100. "Oh, come on," the Times quoted him as chiding the gathering of educators and bureaucrats. They almost certainly will not, and Mr. Spitzer will have a fight on his hands.
His other budget proposals on education measures will increase state spending on public education by $1.4 billion between 2007 and 2008, and by an "unprecedented" $3 billion more by 2011. The governor has argued that his spending increase will leave "no more excuses for failure." Here he has bought into the notion that spending is the problem, even though New York's total outlays on education dwarf those of almost any other state and it still has failing schools. The governor has established a program of conditionality that, if he can win it, is an important breakthrough.
His proposals for Medicaid reform are similarly cautious, but with none of the spending increases that mar his education proposals. He recognizes the waste in hospitals and nursing homes. Mr. Spitzer's budget also recognizes that New York's Medicaid program is by far the most expensive in the nation. In terms of per capita outlays, New York spends more than double what is spent in the program of entitlement-happy California. Mr. Spitzer's solution in this budget is to cut costs by decreasing fraud and squeezing the health care industry in a variety of areas, for a total savings of $1.2 billion.
The proposal has drawn immediate criticism from unions and other industry groups — a sign that Mr. Spitzer is on the right track. All that trimming and squeezing only reduces Medicaid spending growth — to 1.7% from 8%. In other words, New York's bloated Medicaid program will still be growing. Which gets us back to Mr. Silver. It's hard to say how it's going to go in regard to the comptroller, but the budget is the ground that, as the Court of Appeals has made clear, belongs to the executive under the system in New York State, and that's where it makes sense for the governor to make his stand.