Tightening a Very Large Belt
June 6, 2003

As grim as New York State's finances are these days, they provide an opportunity to clean up excesses, remedy bad management techniques and simply fix some of the crazy ways the state loses money. Here are a few ideas, some new and some alarmingly old.

Revamp the state courts by untangling all the extra courtrooms, as proposed five years ago by New York State's chief judge, Judith Kaye. Streamlining the courts would not only make the judicial system less byzantine, but could also save New York $130 million over five years.

Reform the 30-year-old Rockefeller drug laws, which require judges to impose inhumanely long terms for drug convictions. Some analysts estimate the savings at $160 million a year for giving judges more leeway to sentence addicts to treatment, leaving hardened criminals for longer jail time.

Revise the state's bottle redemption law by adding water and juice bottles to the system that pays a nickel for every returned bottle. At least some of the nickels deposited for bottles not returned should go to the state. Right now, to the delight of the beverage industry, all of that money stays with beer and soda bottlers - an estimated $135 million a year or more.

Consolidate state jobs, starting symbolically by adding duties to the lieutenant governor's. New Yorkers cannot afford a salary of $151,500 for this comfortable sinecure. Besides, it is insulting for a lawyer and former judge like Lt. Gov. Mary Donohue to spend so much time dedicating wilderness trails and new automobile tags.

Complete a full inventory of the state's computers, as required by a law now almost three years old. Assemblyman Jeffrey Klein, a Democrat from the Bronx, has estimated that the state could save as much as $560 million of the $1.6 billion spent on information technology. That figure may well be high, but even half of that would do nicely.

Deal with the skyrocketing costs of Medicaid for the state and localities. The Senate has begun a bipartisan review. Now is the time for the governor and Assembly to help find ways to to cut costs without damaging the state's health care systems.

Get rid of the Wicks Law, which raises costs by requiring separate contractors for different pieces of most public construction projects.

Move ahead on the tax changes. Gov. George Pataki, who is faced with the important task of collecting the taxes enacted into law in the recent budget, needs to follow those requirements for changing personal income tax tables and collecting taxes from partnerships and other corporations. Mr. Pataki cannot remind people enough that he was against tax increases, but failing to put the ones passed over his veto properly in place would be the height of irresponsibility.

Some of these revenue and savings options were too difficult in the easy times, generally because they would have angered important special interests or cut back on political patronage. Now the state, mired in financial problems, does not have the option of dodging tough options.

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