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Paterson Finds New Resolve

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Gov. David Paterson has less than six months left in office in a term that expires on December 31, and he has been making the most of his time left in power, forcing the state legislature to enact most of his budget, and vetoing out the parts he doesn’t like.

Paterson, who took over for the disgraced Eliot Spitzer in March 2008, had a rocky first two years as governor. He was plagued by scandals, and seemed to change his mind frequently, as well as his political tactics.

Lately, Paterson has been more resolute and has even pioneered new powers for a New York governor.

After weeks of seemingly hopeless stalemate over the state budget and other issues with a recalcitrant state legislature, the governor discovered he could push his own spending plan forward by attaching it to emergency spending bills to keep government from shutting down.

In recent days, Paterson has singlehandedly vetoed thousands of line-item additions that the legislature made to his budget, including over $400 million in additional school aid, saying he’s done horse-trading with the legislature.

“I’m a little busy right now,” Paterson said at the time.

In the vetoes, the governor struck at the heart of one of the legislative leaders’ source of power, so-called member items. Majority party leaders often award the funds -- sometimes derided as pork barrel spending -- based on a legislator’s seniority, or whether they are at risk of losing their seat in an election.

Steve Greenberg, a pollster with Siena College, says Paterson has displayed more resolve in his recent decisions.

“What we’ve seen now over the last two months is Governor Paterson saying what he’s going to do and then doing what he said he was going to do,” said Greenberg. “There has been absolute consistency.”

Paterson agrees that he’s been figuring out the job as he goes along. He says part of the transformation is due to an increasing sense of obligation to the public the longer he’s been in the position.

“You will make mistakes, and I have made them,” said Paterson in an interview. “But I think this year is a very good example of me learning from my mistakes.”

Siena is currently polling in the field to see whether the governor’s changed governing style and focus on austere budgets is resonating with voters, says Greenberg.

“Certain voters would have looked at that and said ‘here’s a guy who has guts’,” said Greenberg.

But it’s too late for Paterson to run for election. He dropped out of the campaign after one disastrous week last February.

Paterson says he was upset at first that he had to leave the race, but now has gotten over it, and is focused on making the greatest impact in his time left. Since Paterson is not running, he does not have to worry about offending potential campaign donors, or negative ads run against him by interest groups who might be displeased with his decisions to cut education and health-care spending. He says his main goal now is to leave a firm financial foundation for the next governor, and not “kick the can down the road” or “walk away from problems.”

To that end, Paterson is asking the legislature to create a Medicaid contingency fund, in case $1 billion in federal monies do not materialize. The Senate is more receptive to the plan than the Assembly. The Senate however, has not yet finished the budget. Democrats failed to provide the votes for the tax and fee portion of the spending plan. Without it, there’s a $1 billion gap. And Paterson, continuing his new found resolve as governor, says he hasn’t ruled out calling a special session to force lawmakers to finish.