Lt. Governor Ravitch Feels His Work Was Unfinished
The 77-year-old Democrat with the looks and disarming wit of Spencer Tracy was appointed by Gov. David Paterson on July 8, 2009. He agreed to do the job for just $1. Rare for Albany and for Paterson, the decision was widely applauded by Democrats and Republicans.
Ravitch was hired to fix the state budget, slammed by multibillion dollar deficits in a historic recession. It’s what he did during crises for New York City in the 1970s, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority a decade after that, and through various blue ribbon panels that reformed governments.
Then he hit Albany. Ravitch’s input in the last state budget appeared negligible, if he was listened to at all. He then presented his five-year plan to create a truly balanced budget, where spending was finally tied to revenue under serious controls. It was rejected by Paterson and Andrew Cuomo, the attorney general who will soon be governor. Lawmakers followed.
In a painful irony, the Albany denizens who had borrowed billions in deficits and in good times to create much of the current fiscal crisis, twisted an element of Ravitch’s plan—short-term borrowing—as something they would refuse to do out of fiscal prudence. Never mind Ravitch’s borrowing contained serious strings for quick payback and additional fiscal disciplines.
“I made a set of recommendations. I’m assuming he didn’t agree with me,” Ravitch said of Paterson.
Albany swallowed up two other Ravitch plans: One to control Medicaid costs and another to salvage the state’s long neglected transportation system. They, too, were the product of some of the best fiscal and business minds in the nation who jumped at the chance to work with Ravitch.
Now, Ravitch is set to leave office wondering if he made any mark.
“The truth of the matter is, I don’t feel I accomplished anything very substantive,” Ravitch told a gathering at the Rockefeller Institute of Government on Thursday.
“I think his work product has been wasted by the political system,” said Assemblyman Michael A. Benjamin, a Bronx Democrat.
Ravitch will retire after earning rare widespread respect for serious, bipartisan policy making.
“In the end, it was the single best decision that Paterson made,” said former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat. “They never utilized the talent that was there.”
“In retrospect, if the governor had embraced the Ravitch plan, the fiscal crisis before us would have been significantly more controllable,” Brodsky said. “It would still be severe, but the mechanisms of control would be easier to understand.”
Paterson spokeswoman Jessica Bassett declined comment on whether the governor feels he used Ravitch effectively.
“The governor is grateful to Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch for the counsel he provided both during his time as Lieutenant Governor and prior to his appointment,” she said.
For Ravitch, it’s a late and unexpected chapter in a storied career of bringing labor, business and politics together to solve problems that were overtaxing and underserving New Yorkers. The tools of his trade are the disappearing but basic political talents of hard work, listening, and getting along with people you disagree with ideologically.
During a recent visit to his Albany office, the phone rings from atop an immaculate desk, without the requisite golden name plate. The walls have no pictures of himself grinning with politicians, no union baseball caps on shelves, or golden ceremonial shovels in the corner. An old computer sits in the corner, turned off. On the phone is former New York City Mayor David Dinkins. Ignoring the intercom, he shouts through his open door that he’ll take it.
“Probably wants me to teach his class again,” Ravitch mutters in his gravelly tone. “What’s going to happen to poor Charlie?” Ravitch asks Dinkins, referring to Rep. Charles Rangel amid his ethics investigation in Congress.
From others in Albany, Ravitch’s easy references to past leaders like Gov. Hugh Carey, Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink, or Senate Majority Leader Warren Anderson would sound like name dropping. But it’s Ravitch’s realm, along with the best business and government minds in academia, Wall Street and the media. They drop his name.
“It’s Dick!” he admonishes a reporter, again. “If you call me lieutenant governor again, I’ll never talk to you!”
First names. It’s how he operates, and how he helped design the plan that saved New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s when others, including President Gerald Ford, were telling the city to drop dead. Ravitch helped persuade unions into historic givebacks as part of the plan under Carey, a Manhattan Democrat, and Anderson, an upstate Republican.
Those tools didn’t work this time. But many have long noted there aren’t many Careys, Andersons or Finks these days in Albany.
“I don’t think that his effort was wasted,” said E.J. McMahon of the fiscally conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy. “He planted the seeds that are very important and invaluable as a starting point going forward.”
As Ravitch said, Albany first needs the political will to take bold steps away from decades of late budgets, runaway spending, borrowing that now consumes $6 billion a year, and unending deficits.
“There is no public evidence he was used effectively,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “But I think he had a major influence on the public debate.”
Ravitch isn’t so sure. Asked if his blueprint to revive the Empire State will simply remain on a shelf deep in the cavernous Legislative Library, he said:
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