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[Editor's note: April Fools!]

Balancing Act

Thinking outside the box and creating novel solutions to recessionary crises, Gov. David Paterson and the New York State Legislature deliver a budget surprise on deadline

A few minutes before midnight Wednesday, the almost-unthinkable words echoed down the hallowed corridors of the New York State Capitol: The budget is balanced.

It took some creativity, flexibility, and just plain dumb luck, but Gov. Paterson and the Legislature hammered out—and swiftly adopted—a final version of the budget whose revenue and expense sides net out to a big fat zero.

The tide began to turn inexorably toward a balanced budget on Monday when a newly formed Wall Street association called Investment Bankers Making Only Rightful Allowances for Lavishness (IBMORAL) announced that all of its members would donate their entire 2008 and 2009 bonuses to the state coffers. Speaking for the group, Merrill Lynch vice chairman Harold Ford Jr. explained, “I’ve always said that highly compensated banking executives have no right to be paid even more at the end of the year when the economy is in the toilet, and now I, along with several hundred of my colleagues, am going to put my money where my mouth insists it always was.”

The unexpected windfall went a long way to closing the state’s multibillion-dollar budget gap; after that, the goal suddenly seemed to be within reach. Here are the specifics of three other initiatives that led to today’s historic budget.

Wanna Bet?

A move to lease the New York State Capitol for use as a gambling casino is an essential part of the budget deal

 

Mildred Van Dam-Ten Eyck’s granddaughter Britney is worried. Well, if not exactly worried, then extremely peeved as she tugs absent-mindedly at her frizzed-out, blonde hair extensions. (“They make me look like Taylor Swift, doncha think?”) It is nearly midnight in downtown Albany’s lonely Union Bus Terminal on a recent Tuesday, and 17-year-old Britney knows she should be home with her 3-month-old baby. “He’s been colicky lately, and,” Britney mopes, “I have school tomorrow.” But her grandmother’s bus from Atlantic City is due in a few minutes, and Britney knows she has to be there when it arrives.

“Grandma often doesn’t have enough cash left for a taxi,” Britney explains. The elder Ms. Van Dam-Ten Eyck, she adds, always buys a round-trip bus ticket for her monthly excursion to the casinos of Atlantic City; unfortunately, the slots often claim Mildred’s last dime before her cronies can get the “nutty old bat” loaded onto the return Greyhound. So Britney must wait for Grandma’s bus, which arrives right on time.

Mildred smiles when she sees her granddaughter: “I’m 40 bucks ahead this month, honey!”

Settled into the backseat of Britney’s rusted tan Cutlass Ciera, the 48-year-old grandmother explains why she prefers Atlantic City to one of the closer-to-home gaming facilities.

“Craps,” she says. “I don’t just like to play the video slots. I sure wish there was one of those elegant, Trump-style casinos here in Albany.”

“Oh grandma,” Britney laughs, “that’s crazy!”

The startling turn of ev ents this week has proven that even the second-rate dreams of a batty, gambling-addicted senior citizen can come true. On Sunday (March 28), Gov. David Paterson inked a deal to lease the historic New York State Capitol building to a group who will repurpose the gorgeous, 19th-century Romanesque and Renaissance-revival structure into a full-service, Monte Carlo-style casino.

As previously reported in Metroland [“Chief Jerry?” March 18], researchers at the BBL Institute, a think-tank associated with Columbia Development Corp., recently discovered that Mayor Gerald D. Jennings is actually a descendant of Native Americans. It was this discovery which, along with the Obama administration’s immediate recognition of Albany as a Native American enclave, that made the leasing of the Capitol for a casino possible.

“We’ll have the most deluxe gaming facility between Atlantic City and Canada,” the mayor beams at the Sunday morning ceremony held on the East Lawn of the Capitol grounds.

“This will be the gaming center of the entire Northeast,” Paterson adds, as he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Jennings, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the guy—John whatsisname?—who’s running the New York State Senate these days.

Reached later by e-mail, a spokesperson for the governor says it will take six months of “full renovations on crack” before the Capitol Casino (as it is tentatively called) can open for business.

“We fully expect to take in at least $162 million in fiscal 2010,” the spokesperson says, “and $330 million in 2011.”

When it is pointed out that Atlantic City casinos have suffered a 15 percent decline in revenue this year, a decline widely attributed to the harsh winter and continuing recession, Paterson’s flunky says, “revenues are off because Atlantic City’s in Jersey. And Jersey fucking sucks—you can print that!”

If the casino deal is financially sound—and that’s a big “if” we’ll happily leave for another day—is it good for the Capitol itself?

The transition will certainly require some changes: The grand space where the Assembly meets will become the “million dollar bingo” room, and will also be lined with slot machines. The Senate chamber will host an assortment of table games, including roulette, “21” and craps. For those who like their action old-school, the famed Senate fireplaces will also be available for lovers of dice games. The Million Dollar Staircase will be the setting for regular televised Deal or No Deal tournaments hosted by Howie Mandel and featuring the famous “suitcase models.”

And that’s just the beginning.

The question is, will the historic structure suffer from these needed changes, especially after the millions spent in recent years to restore the Capitol to its original architectural glory? The head of the joint city and state Capital City Historic Resources Commission, who reports to both the mayor and governor, says, “maybe.”

It appears that we’ll have to leave that for another day, too.

For now, the Assembly will meet in the recently shuttered Kitty Carlisle Hart Theatre in the Egg; the governor and his staff will move into the Egg’s Swyer Theatre. The Senate will temporarily relocate across the river to the former Troy City Hall.

Asked why the Senate was being exiled to Troy, a highly placed member of the Paterson administration, speaking on condition of anonymity, says “no one likes the [expletive deleted] Senate.”

Now that the state’s capital city will be the home of the Empire State’s Capitol Casino, local gambling connoisseurs like Mildred Van Dam-Ten Eyck won’t have to ride for hours on a bus to Atlantic City for an experience they crave—and New York’s taxpayers won’t see the benefits of this betting action going to New Jersey.

And Mildred’s young granddaughter, Britney, will have to admit that, in the end, grandma wasn’t so crazy after all.

—J. Eric Hanson

Our Bad

State worker unions agree to wage and benefit concessions, setting off a bizarre chain reaction in this government town

 

Early last year, the administration of Gov. David Paterson brought up the topic of “concession bargaining” with the state employee unions. In short, Paterson’s team hoped that the various unions would reopen their contracts. In a February 2009 press release, Civil Service Employees Association president Danny Donohue shot down the trial balloon: “The administration has apparently not heard CSEA’s repeated statements that we will not re-open contracts.”

That was then; Donohue now says that he and his opposite number in PEF (the Public Employees Federation) have changed their tune, and are willing to forego scheduled pay raises and benefit increases in recognition of the current economic climate. These givebacks are another key part of today’s surprising, even magical, budget agreement, and have directly led to an earthquake in Albany’s political culture.

“We’ve suckled at the public teat until we’ve had more than our fill,” Donohue is quoted in a prepared statement released this morning (April 1). “Now we have to give the public teat time to . . . um . . . fill up again.”

Reports of hell freezing over could not be immediately substantiated.

A high-ranking PEF official, speaking with complete candor only on condition of anonymity, agreed wholeheartedly with Donohue: “We’ve really made out like bandits. Like thieves. Since for-effing-ever. I mean, look at the [Gov. George] Pataki years; for all we could tell, he liked getting rolled by us in contract negotiations. Sometimes it felt dirty.”

Behind the scenes, the union concessions caught Paterson’s people off-guard—and filled them with shame.

“After all,” a highly placed administration source conceded, “we’ve pretty much screwed everything up from day one.”

As a group, they decided to give up the pay hikes Paterson instituted a year ago, pay hikes described memorably in the New York Post as “startling.” This amounts to tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention the bump this extra pay gives to their future pension compensation.

Next, in a gesture of solidarity with his staffers, Paterson installed a “stupid” jar in his office at the Capitol. Every time he says something dumb, the governor puts a dollar in the jar; proceeds are forwarded to the state’s general fund. Reports are that the jar was half-full by lunchtime on the first day.

The general outline of these events, only publicly confirmed today, became known among those “in the know” a week ago. And the news caused strange ripples throughout the city.

CSEA and PEF officials reached out to the city of Albany, offering to give up their longstanding opposition to a resident permit parking system for the Center Square, Mansion, Park South and Sheridan Hollow neighborhoods.

“For years we’ve cruised Albany’s streets each weekday morning, seizing any and all parking spots with the decorum of a fat kid filling his gaping pie hole,” the PEF source says, “and now it’s time for us to stop being that fat kid.”

The board of directors of the Albany Convention Center Authority have signaled that they intend to resign en masse today (April 1), because, according to a source close to the board, “they can’t face themselves any more, knowing that this money-losing giveaway to politically connected developers” would eventually have gone forward.

Reformers looking hopefully to Albany City Hall for change should look elsewhere, however. Asked if there’s any chance that the way of doing business on Eagle Street will change, a source close to the mayor laughed, “Are you freakin’ kidding me?”

—J. Eric Hanson

Sweet deal

State leaders may have found a way for New Yorkers to have their cake and eat it too

 

It may be a sunny day outside the New York State Capitol, but under the crisp white canvas of the recently pitched rent-a-tent on the Capitol lawn, the outlook is not so bright. Clusters of shriveled red and blue balloons sag on their ribbons, hovering inches above the ground. Plates brimming with homemade cookies, cakes and pies languish under wisps of plastic wrap. A banner announcing the highly anticipated opening event has been torn down and lies heaped in a corner.

New York State legislators are facing down an April 1 budget deadline. And now a rare bipartisan effort to close the $9.65 billion budget gap has fallen pray to the scandal and political maneuvering all too common in state government.

‘New Yorkers were so up in arms over the so-called ‘fat tax,’” says Eugene Lipshaw, a high school intern who has been acting as the governor’s spokesperson since both his press secretary and communications director resigned earlier this month. “It became clear to us that the freedom to gorge on sweets is a pivotal issue for our constituency.”

Lipshaw thumbs through the talking points he has penned in his Ironman notebook. “Our figures project that an 18-percent tax on sugary sodas and fruit drinks would provide the state upwards of $1 billion in additional revenue,” says Lipshaw, absently picking a scab on his cheek. “If New Yorkers don’t want us to tax their sarsaparilla, we’re gonna have to make up that revenue in other ways.”

That’s when Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos suggested that the Senate hold a bake sale.

“An estimated 60 percent of New Yorkers are overweight or obese,” says Lipshaw. “So there’s clearly a strong market for baked goods.”

According to Lipshaw, Paterson stepped in as the bake sale’s chairman, overseeing the ongoing enterprise; the Senators were to share the responsibility of baking the sweets and manning the tables. “We wanted to start it out as a Monday through Friday thing and take it from there,” says Lipshaw, quickly flashing a colorful but vague revenue chart. “According to the findings of the Senate Bake Sale Committee, we should have no problem reaching our $1 billion goal.”

“I’m thrilled to be a part of this sale,” said Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith in a statement. “It is rare that we find a truly bipartisan solution with which to address the state’s fiscal crisis. Plus, fingers crossed, I can get some more of those luscious pumpkin moonpies Ruben Diaz brought to last year’s holiday party.”

Not everyone is as confident about the bake sale’s success as Paterson and his supporters. “I have to admit, I’m a little skeptical,” says Pop Warner cheerleading coach Ledonna LaMaraca. “I’ve run many a successful bake sale,” she says, “but assuming they charge one dollar per cupcake, every single person in the city of Albany would need to eat 31,000 cupcakes a year to even gross that kind of revenue.” She pauses to tap out the math on her fingers. “That’s 85 cupcakes per person, per day—and they’re not even open on weekends!”

“It’s easy to manipulate the figures,” Lipshaw insists. “She is not taking into account the higher price point on full-sized cakes and pies.”

Asked later if he believed the committee was up to the challenge, bake-sale mastermind Skelos replied, “Absolutely not. Honestly, I was kind of kidding about the whole bake sale thing.”

What began as a joke quickly blossomed into one of New York state’s great hopes for saving precious parks, arts institutions and educational programs that found themselves on the chopping block come budget season. But today, cookies go stale by the dozen as flies busy themselves over the rough landscape of pecan pies.

The Bake Sale Committee had kept things simple—or so they thought. Democrats would be responsible for supplying cakes and cookies; Republicans would bake the pies. Simple.

Until Sen. Tom Duane proposed that he would like to bring his renowned raspberry truffles.

Senate Democrats were confident that the cake-table majority would vote to allow Duane’s truffles. But on Tuesday, in an alarming coup d’etat, Sens. Ruben Diaz, Carl Kruger and Pedro Espada arrived with fruit tarts and declared they’d be voting with the pies.

The power play halted further action on the bake sale, as the Democrats have entered into negotiations with the self-dubbed “Gang of Three” to lure them back to the cake table.

Duane says that Diaz is being “a little bit of a bully,” demanding that the cake table swear to him in writing that they won’t support Duane’s call for sweets equality.

“You clowns are going to have to sort this one out on your own,” said Paterson at the preliminary bake-sale setup. According to insiders, however, the governer commented that Duane’s truffles looked delicious and told Espada that “tart” was just “a douchey word for cold pie.”

The already scandal-tainted governor and bake-sale chairman repeatedly proceeded to eat one of Grandma Ravitch’s famous chocolate cherry drops, and failed to leave his 50 cents in the money box.

Paterson himself has called on Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for an investigation of the incident.

“The investigation of a sitting governor is a complex, weighty matter indeed,” says Cuomo, whose popular no-bake Coconut Joys have positioned him well to take over as bake sale chairman.

“He has my endorsement,” says New York State Democratic Chair Jay Jacobs, brushing a stray coconut flake from his lapel. “Paterson is the lamest duck ever. Did you know he uses a mix as the base for his Rum Cake? New Yorkers deserve for their cakes to be made from scratch.”

Cuomo later announced he would be recusing himself from the contentious cookie case.

“I think of this as the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Albany Sen. Neil Breslin, munching on one of Carl Kruger’s peanut butter bars. “Paterson is a cookie crook. It is just too much, and his resignation should follow.”

Proponents of the sale remain hopeful that the leadership will be able to overcome the cherry drop scandal, and that the cake and cookie tables will come to a resolution over the truffle issue before any more baked goods go stale.

“In these tough economic times, easy fixes to our problems are hard to come by,” said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a statement supporting the sale, “But the bake sale is a fix that just makes sense.”

“Oh yeah, they could make a bundle,” says Leo Slotsky, who has been serving up hot dogs from his cart at the Capitol for 27 years. “We see a lot of hot dog guys down here, a lot of falafel. But you’d be hard pressed to find a cupcake or a linzer tart.”

When presented with Paterson’s projected figures, however, the veteran vendor balked. “Really?” He handed a “Shelly Silver Special,” a footlong dog topped with mustard, onions, meat sauce, and a hearty heaping of sauerkraut to a woman in a suit dress and running shoes. “A billion bucks? Nah. The most I ever knew a cart to bring in was $240 grand. And that was a hot nuts guy in Times Square.”

—Kay Bonadent


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