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David Paterson Leads NY Through Series Of Crises

New York Gov. David Paterson must balance competing perspectives — his constituents include both those who are being blamed for the Wall Street collapse, as well as those who are suffering because of it.

Paterson took over the top job on March 17, 2008 after former Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in disgrace amid sexual scandal.

In a recent interview, the state's first black governor talked about his first year in office, his desire to be re-elected despite his waning popularity and the economic crisis.

The following is an excerpt of our interview with Paterson:

Before we get into the economic issues, I wanted to ask about an issue that made headlines this week. You and state lawmakers reached an agreement to strike down many of the state's strict 1970s-era drug laws. The agreement would abolish the mandatory minimum prison sentences for low-level drug felons. People call these the Rockefeller drug laws. Why do you believe this change is necessary?

Since 1973, New York has had the harshest drug laws in the country and they have simply not worked: The number of people in prison grew from about 12,000 in 1973 to over 70,000 – a lot of low-level, non-violent drug offenders who need treatment for their addictions. And our new law is going to give them the treatment they need and make sure that those who sell drugs, that create misery for others, get the punishment they deserve.

Is the main motivation for change the cost; it's just so expensive to keep locking up so many people? Or is it bad policy? Is it the idea that this is just bad policy; it doesn't even fix the problem?

In these economic times, obviously, anything that saves money is preferred. But we're not going to save money at the risk of public safety. These are people who, for the most part, have been nonviolent, who are addicted; they need treatment. And I think one of the changes in the treatment modality that has helped us and hopefully pass these laws is the fact that treatment is now working. The amounts of recidivism for current abusers some years ago was pretty high. So there was no real confidence that treatment would actually work. But the

But one of our local not-for-profit research organizations was able to show us that where we use drug courts and we have a package where people go into rehabilitation, that only 13 percent of these people are repeat offenders – where when they go through the regular process, it's 50 percent in the first three years. So the staggering effectiveness of treatment programs in the past few years laid the foundation for the laws that we will hopefully pass in the next year.

And a final question on this point before we move on to the economy: The district attorneys, who – it has to be said – have tremendous power to determine ultimate sentences through how they choose to charge crimes, say that these laws have actually lowered crime; they have improved public safety. One of the great successes in New York in recent decades has been the tremendous lowering of the crime rate there. What do you say to that? They say they have improved public safety.

Well, I think that crime has been down in this state for 17 years in a row. And all aspects of law enforcement can be congratulated for that. But the number of people sitting in our institutions from low-level drug offenses serving incredibly long periods of time is something that has – on a bipartisan level – offended a lot of people. And what we have been able to work out with the district attorneys – and we had their input very much so in our taskforce on this issue – is the fact that, for first offenders, we will really try to get them right into treatment. For repeat offenders, if they will plead guilty to the charge that we will then give discretion to the judges to make sure that they get into treatment facilities.

And I think that was a big step for us all to cross and will, I think, really have an effect on people and the violent, vicious malady that drugs have caused the state of New York over the last 30 to 40 years.

Now, of course the New York's attorney general, Andrew Cuomo has made headlines for leveraging the power of his office to get the names of executives that insurance giant AIG, who received some $165 million in bonuses. This is, of course, something that just caused a fury across the country. Now, he says that 15 of the top 20 recipients of those bonuses are going to give the money back. Is he doing the right thing?

Oh, he's absolutely doing the right thing. I think that the outrage that we all felt – and New York state was actually the first entity to try to assist AIG and then, when we realized that we couldn't even measure what their deficit was – that they didn't even have a central bookkeeping to keep track of it because of their credit default swaps, we passed the problem along to the New York Fed and then, inevitably, to the secretary of the Treasury.

And they gave them an $85 billion bailout. Well, when I looked up a couple weeks later and all the executives were at some retreat in Maryland, I was aghast. And then, to see the bonuses that they've handed out, I think it offends every American, the arrogance of, when you're getting help from taxpayers, that you would respond that way.

The only problem for New York is, as those bonuses dwindle, the tax receipts that we collect are dissipated along with them. So in addition to being angry, we are less off than we were before because they're not paying the taxes on those bonuses here in our state.

All right, speaking of anger, you've been traveling around the state to get feedback from the public on how you should address these budget measures. And you've already announced that there are going to be some tough, tough decisions in the offing. People are giving you the business; why are you doing that? Why are you letting people fuss at you like that?

I think it's the right of citizens. And I think that, as a leader of the state, it's my responsibility, if there are going to be tough decisions, to go and explain them to people. And at first, I think anyone's reaction is an angry one when you hear that your healthcare systems are going to be cut, that your education money is going to be diminished, that services for housing and you know, the unemployment rate in New York City, for instance, today, was just announced at 8.1 percent – it was only 6.9 percent in January, so it's up.

And you know, hearing that there's a possibility of imposing taxes, which actually hurts us, because when we impose taxes, people move out of the state and then that reduces our tax base. But we're in such desperate situations that we've actually started to consider it. I've been fighting this for a year, but our budget deficit has grown $3 billion in the last two months. When you quoted it at $15 billion, it's now $16.5 billion.

Hear the full interview by clicking the "Listen" button in the upper left corner of this page.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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