A fiscally responsible governor – By George J. Marlin

The following appears in the February 11-17, 2011 issue of the Long Island Business News:

At an executive mansion breakfast hosted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo late last month for Democratic lawmakers, an Assembly member blasted the governor for opposing tax increases to solve the state’s fiscal woes. The Wall Street Journal reported the Assembly member pointed to a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt and lectured the 56th governor that the 44th governor “was able to be a progressive governor even in a time of great financial difficulty.”

While it is true that Gov. F.D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression declared “aid must be extended by government … as a matter of social duty” and built on many of Gov. Al Smith’s social reforms, nevertheless, he insisted that the Empire State must be fiscally responsible in pursuing those goals. For instance, when President Herbert Hoover asked U.S. governors to pursue “energetic public works,” Roosevelt demanded prudence and promised that relief programs would be “limited only by the estimated receipts from revenue without increasing taxes.”

Roosevelt, who was elected governor in 1928, was the first chief executive empowered by the Executive Budget Amendment that was added to the state constitution in 1927 with Gov. Smith’s support. And FDR aggressively used that authority to tame big-spending legislators.

Under this new system, the governor dealt from his budgetary deck of cards and the Legislature played the hand dealt to it. The Legislature can “take action,” which means it can accept the governor’s budget as it is, reduce spending, eliminate spending or add to a spending measure. However, the governor can exercise his veto power to reject any of these spending changes.

When the state Legislature defied Roosevelt’s authority and added a $56 million lump sum appropriation (the spending of which would be determined later by legislative leaders) on a budget of approximately $250 million, the governor exercised his veto power. After the Legislature re-passed these appropriations, Roosevelt took the matter into the courts. The Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the governor in 1929 and as a result, New York was able to manage its finances in an efficient and more businesslike manner.

Throughout his tenure, Roosevelt insisted that the budget be based on pay-as-you-go methods. He was critical of deficit spending and denounced President Hoover’s long-term borrowing practices to fund present-day operating expenses. “This merely puts,” he said, “the burden of the unemployment cycle on future generations.” He also complained that the Hoover administration was “the greatest spending administration in peacetime in all our history.” He urged, “Let us have the courage to stop borrowing to meet continuing deficits.”

As for welfare programs, Roosevelt argued they should be a temporary expedient, not a permanent way of life. His guiding philosophy was to give relief only to the deserving poor, “those who could not work because they were sick, crippled or unemployed as a result of circumstances beyond their control.” He preferred “work and wage” programs in which recipients worked for the money they received.

Finally, FDR opposed the formation of public employee unions with collective-bargaining powers and the right to strike. He warned that “a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.”

No tax increases, no deficit spending, no long-term debt to fund operating budgets, no public employee unions or strikes – sounds pretty good to me. Adopting Gov. Roosevelt’s principles of state governance and finance will serve Cuomo well in his efforts to restore the Empire State’s economic viability. That snarky Assembly member demonstrated the ignorance of state history that is characteristic of Albany. FDR would be shocked by Albany in 2011 and would be a vocal supporter of Gov. Cuomo’s reforms.

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