The Pataki Revolution Is Slowly Taking Hold

'Liberal' New York gets lower taxes and death penalty

HOW do you shift a state from what has been termed "The People's Republic of New York" to "Gingrichville North?"

As Republican Gov. George Pataki has discovered, not without a lot of effort. After six months in office, Governor Pataki has found it an uphill battle to change what has been one of the nation's leading liberal states.

To be sure, he has moved New York toward more conservative moorings - toward workfare, the death penalty, lower taxes, and less regulation. But the new governor hasn't yet constructed a regional version of the Gingrich revolution.

For example, Pataki and the state Legislature finally signed off last week on a state budget - 68 days after the April 1 deadline. And the new budget, although it contained many elements important to Pataki, is not as radical as the budget slicing in Washington. "People here have been spoiled by the nature and volume of government so when something here is perceived as a cut, people cry louder and earlier here," explains Jay Severin, a GOP strategist.

Former New York City Mayor Edward Koch says Pataki failed to use his "bully pulpit" to wring more concessions on social services out of Albany lawmakers.

"I think Shelly Silver took him to the cleaners on that issue," says Mr. Koch, referring to Sheldon Silver, the Democratic Speaker of the New York State Assembly.

But former Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) suspects it is part of the Republican strategy in Albany to surrender to the Democrats on social services.

"They can argue now that the reason they [the Republicans] were not able to help with more aid for schools and other programs is because the Democrats are protecting poor people who don't deserve protection and help," says Mr. Cuomo, who now is working at a private law firm.

During the budget process, Pataki did little to rally support for his positions. His reticence probably cost him some political support. "His popularity is way down - there was no honeymoon," says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

But Cuomo believes Pataki has lived up to his campaign agenda. "He ran on a simple platform that consisted of three or four general propositions without a great deal of detail, and he has tried to do what he said he would do," says Cuomo in an interview.

Among the Pataki accomplishments:

* The governor has convinced the Legislature of the need for tougher, mandated sentences for violent criminals. The state also enacted a death penalty that goes into effect on Sept. 1.

Cuomo says he is surprised that the Democrats agreed to the tougher sentencing laws.

"It is clear to anyone familiar with the situation, it is not tougher laws but more effective enforcement of the laws," argues Cuomo. Pataki counters that violent felons should be in jail for longer terms.

* Welfare benefits, once a magnet for the poor in other states, now require many recipients to report for workfare projects, such as cleaning up roadsides. Pataki also enacted antifraud legislation, like requiring fingerprinting, to try to cut down on welfare fraud.

* And, for the first time since 1943, the state will reduce its spending while lowering taxes for most New Yorkers. This will mean a reduction of about 10,000 workers in the state's workplace. It also means that New York City will have a larger budget deficit than anticipated since state aid will fall.

The Pataki administration says it plans to build on these accomplishments for next year. "I am confident that next year we will be able to achieve even greater savings, particularly in the area of social services, and improve care at the same time," says Lt. Gov. Elizabeth McCaughey, in an interview.

Lieutenant Governor McCaughey explains that the New York State Constitution only gives new governors one month to devise a budget. "Now we have a full year to access, readjust, and probe further on improving Medicaid and reducing welfare costs," she says.

Some members of the business community believe they can already see a significant change from the days of Cuomo. "There's been a substantial amount of activity to improve the state's regulatory climate," says David Shaffer, president of the Public Policy Institute, a business group in Albany. The governor has placed a moratorium on new regulations and has his departments reviewing old regulations to see if they can be eliminated.

The Massena Operations of Alcoa may have already been the beneficiary of Pataki's business orientation. In the beginning of May, the plant had an emergency. A key furnace needed repair. Normally, it would take six to eight weeks for Alcoa to receive certification from the State Department of Labor to do the work, which involved asbestos.

"It created a very significant bottleneck for the production of the metal," says Mike Cooper, director of government relations at the facility.

Mr. Cooper called the Business Council, an Albany lobbying group. On the same day, the state agency faxed back a form with permission to begin the repairs, which started on the next shift. Cooper believes the fast turnaround is a reflection of the new attitude that the governor and state agencies are trying to develop.

"The whole focus was on how can we help resolve this problem - that was the part that was doggone refreshing," he says.

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