New York Stateís budget deficit is projected to be a whopping $8.2 billion. Those are hard numbers for me to conceptualize, but it certainly drives home the fact that we need to do something drastic in order to stay afloat. But as I learn more and more about the specific cuts (and their corresponding tax, fee and mandate hikes), I grow increasingly bewildered by our governorís strategy.
And believe me, I use the world Ďstrategyí lightly.
The latest, of course, was when I learned that Bowman Lake State Park in McDonough in back on the chopping block alongside New Berlinís Huntís Pond State Park and dozens of other state parks and historical sites across the state.
This is a travesty on so many levels. Give me an hour or two and Iíd be happy to list them all for you. But for the sake of brevity, Iíll forgo an emotional outpouring of what Bowman Lake has meant to me, my family and my friends over the years. Iíll also refrain from giving an impassioned plea about the intrinsic value of our state park system, and the opportunities it offers for the exploration and appreciation of our natural world.
As tempting as all of that is, Iíll focus on something with which our legislators and yes, even the possibly-soon-to-be-ex-governor, should be able to relate. And thatís economics. Because during budget time, dollars and cents are what its all about.
There is a cost involved with maintaining our state park system, of that there is no doubt. But at the same time, these parks and historical sites are also revenue generators for our state. Those 55,000 people that visited Bowman Lake last year, all of whom paid for the privilege. Ditto the 8,000 that used Huntís Pond during the season. All told, close to 56 million visitors made use of the 214 properties in our park system last year.
According to Parks Commissioner Carol Ash, the state not only benefits directly from the fees these visitors pay, but also from the $1.9 billion or so in economic activity those visitors generate. She also reports that the state park system supports roughly 20,000 private sector jobs.
And more and more people are making use of the park system. Dan Keefe, the department spokesman I talked to earlier this week, told me that they saw attendance increase by 1.9 million visitors across the state last year.
You donít have to be too business savvy to make the connection between the number of people visiting our parks and historical sites and the revenue they generate.
Yet, the governor, in his not-entirely-infinite wisdom, has decreed that parks will be closed and services cut. Which, in turn, will decrease revenues.
I sincerely hope that Iím not the only one who sees the flawed logic behind this move.
I was equally incensed when I took a look at the Ag & Markets budget. As you may or may not know, this department supports our stateís largest industry - agriculture. Their total budget is less than most - if not all - Long Island School districts. And they just got slashed again.
On the chopping block for them are all of the programs which help New Yorkís farmers, wineries and other ag producers (like apple growers, maple producers and the like) from promoting the sale of their products.
Again, Iíd think we would want to sell more, not less. Because the more we sell, the more taxes paid, jobs supported, etc.
And lets talk about jobs for a moment. Donít we want to create more jobs? So that people can work and be self-supporting, rather than creating a system where more and more people depend on the state for their survival. Because thatís the kind of welfare state I see being created. Weíre so busy giving a hand out, that we never get to the hand up part.
The truth of the matter is, that our state is going to continue in its downward spiral until real chance is effected. That means cuts and reform to the areas on which we spend the most.
Unfortunately, one of those areas is education.
Now, donít get me wrong. Iím a strong supporter of education. School aid reductions are a hard pill to swallow, but I do understand that some cuts are necessary. My fear is that the way these particular cuts are being made will undermine our education system, further handicapping New Yorkís future. The problem is that these sharp reductions in state aid arenít accompanied by any significant reduction in the laundry list of mandates schools are saddled with.
Mandates, I might add, which are already a burden on local taxpayers and prevent our districts from operating as efficiently as they might otherwise be able.
Since these mandated areas are off-limits for cuts, districts will have to make harder decisions - like cutting staff and programs. Again, more hand outs, less hands up.
There is another huge area of the budget where I feel not enough cuts and reforms are being proposed. Iím talking about the fact that New York State has what Iíve heard public officials refer to the ďCadillacĒ of Medicaid plans. In other words, while the other stateís stick to a light bar menu, we offer a full dinner menu, complete with wine list. And we have one of the lowest federal reimbursement rates - so state and local taxpayers are picking up a lot of that tab.
As Paterson digs our state even further into a hole, heís also doing some digging on his own. With two scandals now brewing over his actions, it seems increasingly likely that he may not be around long enough to affect many of the cuts heís proposed.
If he does step down, however, New York will be faced with an even bigger unknown, as the man waiting to step into Patersonís shoes is not one selected by the people of this state to lead them. I speak, of course, of Lt. Governor Richard Ravitch, who was appointed to the position by the current governor despite the protests of the state attorney general who claimed the appointment was a violation of New Yorkís constitution.
But maybe thatís not a bad thing, because Ravitch has come to the stateís rescue when it comes to fiscal crisis a time or two before.
Oh, what a mess weíre in.