Dropping the ball

The decline of New York Governor David Paterson’s political currency spelled doom for his State Asset Maximisation Board, writes Cezary Podkul.

It really was a remarkable moment when New York Governor David Paterson stood at a press conference last year announcing the findings of his Commission on State Asset Maximisation and, on the spot, accepted its recommendations.

Remarkable because the signature recommendation was no small feat: a bold move to create a strong, nimble oversight body for fostering private financing of New York’s big-ticket infrastructure projects. As one can tell by the state’s self-assessed $80 billion infrastructure spending deficit and a $9.2 billion budget deficit, New York just doesn’t have the money to, say, replace the Tappan Zee bridge.

But in the end, these financial pressures proved a double-edged sword for the so-called State Asset Maximisation Board. At the same time the lack of funds prompted Paterson to explore alternative methods of financing infrastructure projects, it also prompted him to turn his attention away from following-through on their delivery.

“Due to persistent budgetary concerns the formation of the SAM Board has been put on hold until the next administration,” Elizabeth Mitchell, a spokesperson for the Empire State Development Corporation, told InfrastructureInvestor.com in a statement. The Empire State Development Corporation was to house the SAM Board.

Other factors undoubtedly also distracted Paterson. In February, The New York Times reported that Paterson had interfered in a domestic violence case involving one of his close aides, David Johnson. The story was so shocking that it prompted Paterson to ask his political rival, Andrew Cuomo, New York’s Attorney General, to investigate his administration’s handling of the case. A few days later, it also caused him to drop out of the gubernatorial race.

With a Governor Paterson no longer a possibility for the next four years, one can understand why he may have been tempted to not select a State Asset Maximisation Board that a future governor might find questionable. Indeed, with his low political ranking, it may even be a good thing that the state will not have a board associated with him.

But the whole episode illustrates that infrastructure investment remains a political football that is far too often tossed from one administration to the next. And, barring a quarterback being elected into office who can truly champion its cause, far more often than not, the ball ends up getting dropped.