The state's projected $9 billion budget gap for next year didn't stop State Senate candidate Michael H. Ranzenhofer from suggesting a massive, across-the-board cut in taxes last week.
Ranzenhofer said his tax plan -- a 10 percent cut in the state's personal income tax for people earning less than $200,000 and a doubling in the STAR property tax exemption -- are essential to helping middle-class families hit hard by the stock market crisis.
But can the state afford it?
"Difficult times require dramatic action," the Amherst Republican said.
In a new 30-second TV ad, Ranzenhofer, an Erie County legislator, touts his tax plan as "real relief."
His Democratic challenger says its naive and irresponsible.
"It's basically a lot of fluff," said Joe Mesi, the former professional boxer. "We agree on the need to cut state spending. The difference is, I can tell you where and how. I'm not sure he can."
Ranzenhofer does offer the means to pay for his tax cut. He wants a mandatory 15 percent across-the-board cut in state spending and says $19 billion in savings would flow from those changes.
The one exception he would make to those broad-based cuts is state aid to local school districts.
His bold proposal prompts the question: Is it credible enough to be taken seriously in Albany?
And how does one lawmaker, especially a freshman who may or may not be in the Senate majority, convince the rest of the State Legislature to cut spending at all state agencies by 15 percent?
"One legislator makes it happen by having the backbone to stand up," he said. "I also believe my vote will be very important."
It's no secret the Ranzenhofer-Mesi race is one of the most pivotal in the state this year. The GOP is eager to maintain control of the Senate -- it currently holds a one-seat majority -- and Ranzenhofer is running for a seat that historically has been Republican.
Mary Lou Rath currently holds the 60th State Senate District seat, but she is retiring. The district includes northern Erie County, including much of Tonawanda and Amherst, and Genesee County.
In Ranzenhofer, the GOP has a 20-year veteran of the Erie County Legislature and a politician with a long record of opposing tax increases, even when it puts him at odds with his own party.
Ranzenhofer, for example, was criticized three years ago for opposing tax increases that Republicans and Democrats said were needed to save the county from fiscal collapse.
Mesi thinks Ranzenhofer's latest plan is vague, dangerous and destined for failure. His 15 percent across-the-board spending cut would be dead on arrival in Albany, Mesi said, and would put a large number of important state-funded programs at risk.
By cutting every program except school aid, Ranzenhofer's plan would affect a wide range of state-funded services, from college financial aid to job training to after-school tutoring programs.
"His math is fuzzy and his plan is reckless," Mesi said. "When we make cuts, we have to use a scalpel. We can't use a sledgehammer."
The Democrat also has his own plan for cutting taxes and spending. It's a strategy based on the Circuit Breaker bill that Assembly Democrats passed this year.
The bill would lower people's property taxes by setting a ceiling on how much of a household's income can go to property taxes.
The legislation also allows for homeowner rebates of any tax payments above that ceiling. Mesi's campaign claims the average New Yorker would get back more than $700 dollars a year.
"That's real tax relief," Mesi said.
To pay for the Circuit Breaker bill and help with the state's budget gap, Mesi has released a list of budget cuts he would support as a freshman Democratic senator.
He wants to cut capital spending by 7 percent, reduce state jobs through attrition, reform Medicaid, reduce waste in the Empire Zone development program and eliminate Wall Street subsidies.
The one sacred cow, in the eyes of both Mesi and Ranzenhofer, is education. The similarities end there.
"We need a more conservative approach in Albany," said Ranzenhofer, a partner in an Amherst law firm. "There has to be a fundamental change in how we manage the state's finances."
Mesi, meanwhile, preaches patience and calm, a sharp contrast to the urgency that is the mantra of Gov. David A. Paterson.
Just last week, Paterson called on state lawmakers to return to Albany Nov. 18 for a special session devoted to the budget crisis and the recent turmoil on Wall Street.
"Is there a crisis?" Mesi asked last week. "Yes, there is, but we can get out of it."