Running Uphill


John Faso, the Republican and Conservative nominee for governor, acknowledges that he is fighting an uphill battle against his popular Democratic opponent, Eliot Spitzer. But he told The Jewish Week that should there be a Democratic sweep Nov. 7, it would inevitably spell "much higher taxes" for New Yorkers.

Faso, 54, a lawyer who lives in upstate Kinderhook with his wife and two children, is a fiscal conservative who was elected to the State Assembly in 1986. In 1994, then Gov.-elect George Pataki asked him to chair his budget transition team; he later helped draft Pataki first budget. He was named minority leader in 1998, a post he gave up four years later to run against Alan Hevesi for state comptroller; he narrowly lost.

Raised in Seaford, L.I., Faso said he plans to use his budget skills to cut taxes and cap school district taxes at no more than 4 percent. He said that extra state money to city schools in the last two years should "minimize or mitigate" a court order that found the state had shortchanged them.

Faso said also that Hevesi should resign over his ethical lapse (he’s charged with using taxpayer money to pay a chauffeur for his wife), and charged that this impropriety was just "the tip of the iceberg with Hevesi."

Below are excerpts from the interview:

Jewish Week: What would be the effect on New York if all statewide officeholders and a majority in the Assembly were Democrats?

John Faso: Inevitably we would see much higher taxes. Spitzer has made billions of promises for new spending and borrowing that will mean he has to raise taxes in order to meet many of those commitments.

You talked of cutting taxes by $11 billion in taxes and increasing the school exemption by $3 billion over three years. Yet they are talking about a budget gap in New York of almost $14 billion in the next two years. How do you square that?

I don’t think the gap is anywhere as large as that. Having done budgets in the state before, these gaps are very much subject to forces in the economy and we are particularly subject to forces on the stock market and Wall Street in New York. Much of those gaps truly do not exist and much of them are a factor of existing spending extrapolated forward.

I would propose a state budget that would not spend a nickel more than weíre spending this year. This year state spending went up 13 percent: over three times the inflation rate. We have to go back to a much leaner, fiscally responsible approach. I’ve done this before. In 1994 when Pataki took over with a $5 billion deficit, I chaired the budget team that worked day and night for about seven weeks and put together the first budget in 52 years that actually reduced state spending.

We have to reduce taxes. New Yorkers are significantly overtaxed; we’re 53 percent above the national average. We have whole portions of the state, particularly upstate, that are suffering from enormous population loss and lack of investment. The tax reductions that I have proposed are geared towards one goal: to make New York State a much more competitive place to live, work and have a business.

As a native Long Islander, you know that school budgets are entirely dependent upon property taxes. How would you deal with that?

I’m not proposing a freeze on school taxes but a cap on how much they can go up in any particular year. If voters in that district want to break that cap, they could. The cap would be 4 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is less. So it does allow (at a minimum) inflationary cost of living adjustments. In order to allow school districts to operate within the caps, we need to have significant relief and reform from school mandates that drive up school spending without necessarily enhancing the educational product. … That includes abolition of the Wicks Law that requires multiple contractors for public construction contracts. I also propose that districts have the option of creating 401(k)s for new employees … and over a four-year period would double STAR [the School Tax Relief Program].

Courts have ruled that New York City public schools have been shortchanged by the state to the tune of several billion dollars. Would you try to get that money out of Albany?

That case if it were followed through on a statewide basis (and Spitzer said he wants to) would require about $8 billion to $10 billion in additional operating aid for local schools. The Court of Appeals has not finally decided this case.

The Legislature and the governor did an $11 billion capital program that went a long way to meeting many of the aims that were contained in that litigation, and in the last two years there has been $1.2 billion of additional operating aid (above and beyond the norm) put into New York City schools. The prior decisions of the court did not consider either that additional capital aid or operating aid, and I believe that much of the impetus behind the case has been minimized or mitigated by what the Legislature and the governor in conjunction with Mayor Bloomberg have done in the last two years.

How do you think the controversy surrounding Comptroller Alan Hevesi should be resolved?

Hevesi is in such a compromised position having stolen taxpayer money that he has to resign his office.

How do you view the state of race relations and religious tolerance in New York?

I think society as a whole has become much more tolerant of religious and ethnic differences. That is good and that is appropriate. … I could be supportive of civil unions but do not support same-sex marriage because I think marriage is both a religious and civil institution and the concept of same-sex marriage is contrary to the religious traditions of millions of New Yorkers. I think it’s a mistake for society through its laws to get far away from the basic mores of society.

What steps would you take to restrict abortion?

I have always been pro-life. While that is my view, I also believe that the basic rights of abortion are not going to change in New York State regardless of who gets elected. … But I do support things like parental notification for minors. How involved should the state be in terms of religious practices? I’m thinking of the controversy involving a controversial form of circumcision.

It certainly is a sensitive topic, and I know the city and state health departments have weighed in on this. … Generally speaking the state should respect religious practice, but if there is a genuine health concern … the state needs to make sure that public health is protected.

The state has an office in Israel that tries to develop business and commercial ties between New York State and Israel. Is that appropriate?

I think it is. You have to look at every expenditure of government, and I would look at it just to ascertain we are getting our money’s worth. From what I have heard throughout the years, that office has generated a reasonable amount of business opportunities between New York State, individuals and enterprises and those in Israel.

Have you ever been to Israel?

I never have, and I look forward to going. I’m half Italian and half Irish, and I’ve never been to Ireland or Italy either.