Speculation will abound about why George Pataki will not seek a fourth term as governor in 2006.
Perhaps, looking at the polls, he didn't want to suffer the same fate as his predecessor Mario Cuomo, losing to a challenger after serving three terms. Pataki confounded virtually every political expert by ousting Cuomo in 1994 to become governor. But polls show Democrat Attorney General Eliot Spitzer would have an edge on Pataki if they were to face off in the 2006 election.
Perhaps, Pataki has his eyes on a bigger prize and intends to spend the two years before the 2008 presidential election making an earnest bid for the White House.
Perhaps it is a combination of the two.
The governor has had his successes, including a strong record of environmental protection. But before the book is written on his legacy as governor, he has 17 months to go, 17 months to get the state on a better fiscal path and to make reforms long promised but, at best, only half-delivered.
The state is still mired in debt and backdoor- borrowing continues, especially within New York's public authorities. The recent controversy over refinancing transportation debt merely highlights the point. Taxpayers pay about $4 billion a year just to cover the interest payments on all the state's debt. These bills will continue to haunt taxpayers until state lawmakers move closer to a pay-as-you-go method of government.
New York is facing a court order to provide more funding to New York City schools, and state leaders still haven't settled long-standing differences about how to resolve the matter. Ideas to streamline the state's confusing school-aid formula have gotten nowhere. Neither have proposals to add a reasonable amount of funding to the most needy districts over time while holding harmless the state's wealthier school districts. In the long run, taxpayers would be better served by a remedy offered by their elected officials rather than one imposed by the courts.
While a state budget was finally passed by the April 1 deadline this year, this was the first time in the Pataki era state leaders achieved this rudimentary goal. They will have to rattle off consecutive years of achievement before New Yorkers resume faith in the system.
Other issues, ranging from reforming the onerous Rockefeller drug laws to figuring out a realistic and proper plan to allow casino gambling in the Catskills, have been on the table for years with no resolution. People caught with a few ounces of drugs shouldn't be spending more time in prison than some rapists and murderers. Nonviolent drug offenders, users — not big-time dealers — should be sentenced to spend time in less expensive drug treatment programs.
And the governor wrongly pushed for five casinos in the Catskills region, far too many at once, but the courts have effectively struck down that plan. The state would be wise to allow one casino in the Catskills as a test case to evaluate the impacts on the area.
The list of pending and grave matters is, indeed, long. While Albany insiders, pollsters and media experts will have a grand time trying to figure out Pataki's next move, the governor still has a ways to go in his job. His legacy is still to be written and will in part depend on his performance in the next 17 months.