The 5 percent pay cut that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo imposed on himself and his top staff is a symbolic act -- an important one, in fact, but New Yorkers are waiting for real progress. The new governor probably knows this and will offer much more about the road ahead in his first State of the State address today. Albany must attain fiscal sanity, responsible ethical conduct and fair elections. Today, Cuomo can lay out his course to get there.
In that vein, Cuomo imposed the 5 percent pay cut as a sign of good will to the public employee unions: He's asking them to sacrifice, too, in the huge task to close a vast, $9.3 billion budget deficit without raising taxes. But unlike their private-industry counterparts, New York's public-employee unions rarely give up anything to stabilize their employers. Leaders of the public unions know they are in the driver's seat and need not accept the pay freeze that Cuomo wants in 2011 if they can live with some layoffs. While the governor and the unions are talking with mutual respect at the threshold of this process, Cuomo today can show he means business by detailing the number of firings he might impose absent a wage freeze.
Of course, the governor can discuss more than a wage freeze as he describes his deficit-closing strategy both today and in a few weeks when he unveils his budget proposal. Any meaningful deficit-closing must involve Medicaid -- a sacred cow discussed frequently -- and aid to education -- a sacred cow discussed rarely.
Even while moving toward a cap on property taxes, state government must look to scale back the billions it pours into the more than 700 public school districts that do little to merge or economize, nor to consider their taxpayers when they lavish huge salaries on redundant administrators and lift teacher compensation to unsustainable heights. New York's public school system routinely spends more per pupil than any other state's, but educators wail to the heavens whenever moves are afoot to bring their costs into line. If everything is on the table for cuts, the governor can mention education-aid specifically, while also offering schools relief from unfunded mandates that drive costs higher.
Like lawmakers everywhere, New York lawmakers are loath to police themselves. They need the threat of outside oversight. With both houses of the State Legislature in attendance today, the governor has a fine opportunity to insist that they approve his plan to unleash a new ethics watchdog with real teeth, perhaps by empowering the state inspector general to expand his reach to the Legislature as well. Cuomo need not stop there. He can repeat that lawmakers should be forced to fully disclose all outside income, and tighten the campaign finance laws that have long been among the most lax in the nation.
Other well-meaning governors have hit the ground running only to meet a Legislature that travels at rickshaw speed. The smugly complacent Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver of Manhattan, is adept at waiting out governors and their reform plans. Both parties in the Senate, a basket case, will be afraid to make any controversial decision, further portending legislative gridlock. But there might be a critical mass in place for Cuomo to ensure that the Legislature abides by the redistricting report of an independent commission, so that legislative districts are no longer drawn to protect incumbents of the majority party. Further, the governor can describe how he will ensure a Constitutional Convention -- he calls it a "People's Convention" -- to bring common sense to all the rules governing Albany.
New Yorkers need and deserve these reforms, and more. Most of the above has already been advocated over the years by past governors and lawmakers who could not get it done, either because they lacked the will or found themselves boxed in by the protectors of the status quo. Cuomo today can tell the New Yorkers who gave him his Election Day mandate how he will produce the real results that have been put off for far too long.