Albany, NY – Governor Paterson gives his second State of the State address at 1 pm Wednesday, amidst the state's worst fiscal crisis in decades, and as the governor struggles to make a comeback for an election campaign. Paterson's aides say he will focus part of the speech on ethics reform.
Paterson will deliver his speech in the middle of the state's worst financial crunch in decades, as New York faces a second year of multi billion dollar deficits. The governor will address the legislature at a time when tensions between himself, the Senate and Assembly are simmering, and when many lawmakers and members of the political class believe the governor will be overshadowed in his election attempt by the state's popular Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo.
Paterson and his aides have decided to change the subject from those unwelcome topics for a bit, and have unveiled a sweeping set of ethics reforms that they say get to the heart of Albany's dysfunction.
The governor's communications director, Peter Kauffman, said in a telephone briefing that Paterson will propose term limits, mandatory public financing of campaigns, and greater disclosure of lawmakers' outside income.
"The governor feels that ethics reform is a key that will unlock the ability to move into other areas," said Kauffman, including fiscal reform, economic development, and job creation.
The plan also calls for an Independent Ethics Oversight commission, to police it all. Paterson previously called for the members of the current Public Integrity commission to resign, after an Inspector General's report criticized some of their procedures. The commission members refused.
The campaign contribution limits would severely hobble a statewide candidate's ability to raise money, lowering the maximum contribution for a candidate for governor from the current nearly $60,000 to just $1000.
Though the governor would like the bills to become law as soon as possible, Kauffman says the governor will not pledge to voluntarily abide by his proposed limits, but will instead operate under current rules. He compares the situation to nuclear disarmament talks.
"The United States in the 1980's supported the principle of nuclear disarmament," said Kauffman. "But we certainly were not going to stop producing nuclear weapons."
The governor may not be receiving any of those maximum contributions anyway. Paterson is currently in a war of words with some of the state's most powerful factions, including the schools systems and the teachers union, who have filed a lawsuit against him. The court action began after Paterson withheld partial payments to schools and others in December because the state had run out of money. Paterson accused what he called the "special interests" of attempting to "peacock and placate their members".
A mailing by Paterson's campaign manager warns potential supporters of attempts by the so-called special interests to "bury" Paterson's "campaign under a mountain of their money contributed to their candidate". While no names are mentioned, it is widely believed that the next public disclosure of campaign filings on January 15th will show that Attorney General Cuomo has millions more dollars collected than Paterson. Cuomo has not said that he's actually running for governor.
The governor will need the cooperation of the legislature to get any of the ethics changes approved, as well as a new state budget. The state is facing an estimated $8 billion dollar deficit. Paterson's relationship with lawmakers has deteriorated in recent months, worsening after the legislature only partially filled a $3.2 billion dollar gap in the current budget. And the governor has not been shy about castigating lawmakers, saying they are more interested in "their own political problems", than addressing the problems of the state. He warns legislators "cannot shirk their responsibility time and time again".
The State of the State message may also hold some clues to how Paterson plans to deal with the looming budget deficit, and current financial problems. A report out Tuesday from the State Comptroller shows that the state ended 2009 with a negative cash balance of $577 million dollars.