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Remembering Richard Ravitch – A Public Servant for all Seasons

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Stephen R. Rolandi
July 31, 2023

Late last month, Richard Ravitch died just short of his 90th birthday in New York City. I first met Mr. Ravitch when he was a plenary speaker at ASPA’s Northeast Regional Conference at the Hotel Roosevelt in 1987; and much later when I was Deputy Commissioner for New York State’s Division of Human Rights.

He was among the last surviving members of a remarkable generation of political, business and union leaders who steered New York City out of the brink of financial bankruptcy in the mid 1970s. My column this month is devoted to an examination of his life, accomplishments and legacy.

Richard Ravitch was educated at Oberlin College and Columbia University, from where he received a bachelor’s degree in American history with honors. He then received his Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Yale University Law School in 1958. After completing his education and military service, he held staff positions with the House of Representatives’ Government Operations Committee, New York State Commission on Governmental Operations for the City of New York and (by Presidential appointment), the United States Commission on Urban Problems; a little later (1968), he became President of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC) in New York City.  

In addition, during this time, Ravitch joined and later became CEO of his family’s construction business HRH Construction Corporation, which had offices, in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. Some notable large scale construction projects undertaken by HRH were: Columbia University Law School; NYU Hospital/Medical Center, as well as several luxury apartment complexes.

It was during the 1970s that Ravitch’s financial, business and management acumen was called on to deal with major public sector financial crises. In 1975, he was appointed by Governor Hugh L. Carey Chairman of the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC) to salvage the finances of this large public benefit corporation, which at the time was nearly insolvent. In 1979, Governor Carey appointed Ravitch as head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), where he was able to recapitalize the system, build the Metro-North Railroad from existing lines, and improve labor relations.

Along the way, Ravitch served as Chairman of the Bowery Savings Bank of New York in 1985 and turned that entity’s finances around. He also unsuccessfully sought the Mayoralty of New York City in 1989. Following this, he returned to the private sector for several years.

The most enduring aspect of his public career came when he became Lt. Governor upon his appointment by then Governor David Paterson on July 8, 2009 (a legal challenge to Ravitch’s appointment failed when the New York State Court of Appeals upheld Paterson’s appointment).

With the national financial crisis of the Great Recession of 2008 as context, Lt. Governor Ravitch developed a substantive and deeply researched approach to New York’s structural deficit problems.

In March of 2010, he advanced a number of proposals (they can be found at: www.empirecenter.org/publications)  to streamline and improve New York State’s budget process, which included the following:

  • Change New York’s fiscal year to July 1st from the current April 1st—this is in line with what 46 of the 50 state currently require. This change would have had the effect of making revenue forecasts more accurate and decrease the chance of a late-passed budget. The new date would also have meant that having income tax revenues by April 15 on hand would make for stronger revenue forecasts (to implement this proposal, Ravitch recommended that the state have a 15 month fiscal year immediately preceding the start of the new fiscal year date as a transition period);
  • Require a quarterly assessment by an independent Financial Review Board of the State’s progress towards structural balance and the maintenance of annual balanced budgets, as per GAAP standards;
  • Authorize the Governor, if the independent review board finds that the budget is not projected to be in balance, and the Governor and Legislature cannot agree on gap-closing measures within a limited-time frame, to implement across the board pro-rata reductions;
  • Permit the State to borrow within stringent limits to close existing budget gaps, but only if the review board finds that strict financial controls were not met.

Both Governor Paterson and the State Legislature chose not to adopt these proposals; and by 2011, a new Governor (Andrew M. Cuomo) advanced his own budget cutting measures (as well as forcing the Legislature to adopt on time April 1st budget appropriations) which resulted in an increase in the state’s bond rating. But the issues raised by Dick Ravitch remained.

Ravitch completed his term as Lt. Governor and turned his efforts to other endeavors. In 2012, he co-chaired the State Budget Crisis Task Force with former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volker, which examined the fiscal condition of six of the nation’s most populous states—California; Illinois; New York; New Jersey; Texas; and Virginia. The Task Force focused on swiftly expanding spending in these categories—pensions, Medicaid and public-worker health care, while observing that Federal budget cuts, increasingly volatile income-tax revenues and conflicting demands for expenditures on education, public safety and infrastructure threaten the ability of states to maintain established levels of public service. The Task Force concluded that many states’ own budget practices are often expedient and opaque, making achievement of financial stability and sustainability difficult.     

Mr. Ravich’s legacy to fiscal integrity continues today with the establishment of the Richard Ravitch Public Finance Initiative, a project of The Volker Alliance (phone: 646.343.0155; e-mail: [email protected]). It aims to catalyze Federal action to improve state and local budget practices that present looming risks to the Federal system and national economy. It is my hope that elected officials will heed Richard Ravitch’s warnings about the dangers of structural deficits, and do something constructive about them. As a former practitioner and now teacher of public administration, my hope is that Dick Ravitch’s career will serve as an inspiration to today’s public administration students—and tomorrow’s leaders.

Author: Stephen R. Rolandi retired in 2015 after serving with the State and City of New York. He holds BA and MPA degrees from New York University, and studied law at Brooklyn Law School. He teaches public finance and management as an Adjunct Professor of Public Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) and Pace University. Professor Rolandi is a Trustee of NECoPA; President-emeritus of ASPA’s New York Metropolitan Chapter and past Senior National Council Representative. He has  served  on many  association boards in Washington, DC, New York City and Westchester County. He is a frequent guest commentator on  public affairs and political issues affecting the nation and New York State. You can reach him at: [email protected] or [email protected] or  914.441.3399 or 212.237.8000.

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