ALBANY - In undercutting Gov. David A. Paterson's 2010 election bid, the White House may have inadvertently crippled his ability to deal with New York's No. 1 problem: a budget deficit that is worsening by the week, experts said.
Lawmakers now could be more prone to ignore Paterson's call for quick action to erase the $3 billion in red ink.
If they procrastinate too long, the experts said, there will be no option besides slashing social services and aid to localities, hiking property taxes and laying off state workers. Money is leaving the treasury faster than tax collections are coming in, they said.
No agreement was reached last week as the Capitol fixated on reports President Barack Obama, through intermediaries, allegedly requested Paterson bow out of next year's race in the face of historically low poll numbers.
"President Obama or his people . . . have complicated the governor's task greatly, and I don't think that's to the benefit of the people of New York," said Susan Lerner, director of the good-government group Common Cause.
"Governor Paterson already had a troubled relationship with the legislature and right now, with the budget shortfall, everybody should put aside the partisan games to solve this problem," she said. "No one benefits if New York turns into California, which is existing on IOUs."
Even Paterson admits to feeling damaged by the episode - and he still has 15 months left in his term.
"I'm concerned about my ability to govern . . . to get people to do something that's very difficult, to try to close [the deficit]," he said a day after Obama showed affection toward Paterson's rival, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
The governor's stature was already diminished by his mishandling of the January appointment of a U.S. senator. He sustained further damage with the $131.8-billion budget, which increased taxes during the worst recession in 70 years.
Moreover, Paterson was unable to quickly end this summer's State Senate stalemate; by then, his approval rating was 20 percent. Today it's at 17 percent.
Focus on budget
In the wake of the Obama-Paterson flap, key lawmakers from both parties promise not to be diverted by talk of 2010.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Senate chief John Sampson (D-Brooklyn) bristled at suggestions that Obama had made Paterson a lame duck. "Our edict from the 19.5 million people of the state . . . is to close the budget deficit," Sampson said.
Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) added, "We have to govern with David Paterson right now. . . . Our responsibility is to the taxpayers, not to the president."
But some budget-watchers expressed skepticism. Elizabeth Lynam, a research director at the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission, said she doubted the rebellious Senate would easily adopt a deficit plan engineered by Paterson.
"The temptation because of [the Obama-Paterson hubbub] is for lawmakers to say, 'We'll wait and see whose around next year' - and if they do that, they could be facing a much larger deficit," Lynam said. "The later you start . . . the greater the chance of huge cuts and huge tax increases, all coming at once."
Trouble for taxpayers?
Homeowners could be hit particularly hard. Previous budget-cutting led local property taxes to rise as Albany shifted more responsibility onto local governments.
Ron Deutsch of New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness said, "It'll be disastrous if there are increases in property taxes; taxpayers are at the breaking point now."
Not everyone thinks Obama's alleged shove will diminish Paterson's influence. He has been a lame duck for a while, some said.
Karen Schimke, chief of the Schuyler Center in Albany, which advocates for families, described the dust-up as a "sideshow" compared with New York's prolonged recession.
Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group agreed. Paterson's "approval ratings were at rock-bottom already," Horner said. "The alleged Obama move on Paterson doesn't make things worse.
"The real issue is that Albany's dysfunction means higher costs and lower quality services for the average person."
$3 billion: Projected budget deficit for 2009-10 fiscal year
$4.6 billion: Projected budget deficit for 2010-11 fiscal year
$25.1 billion: Reduction in spending growth since Gov. David A. Paterson took office in March 2008
3,722: Number of state-government jobs cut recently through buyouts, attrition and elimination of vacant positions.
$260.3 million: Savings over two years from cutting these jobs
Nov. 2, 2010: General election for governor
Dec. 31, 2010: Paterson’s last day in office unless elected