Home MTA Politics From Staten Island, an insight into Albany’s crazy thinking

From Staten Island, an insight into Albany’s crazy thinking

by Benjamin Kabak

Most Assembly members don’t seem to know what happens on the Assembly floor.

For transit advocates, Albany is the gift that keeps on giving but in the wrong vein. Representative after representative spew falsehoods about the state of public transit funding in New York City, the MTA’s role in the budget crisis and their duties to their constituents. Yesterday, I challenged Jose Peralta’s open letter to Jay Walder. Today, even more state officials are commenting in ways that are both stunningly inept and illuminating.

This tale starts with Peralta’s letter. In it, the good Senator from Queens accuses the MTA of suffering from the political equivalent of Munchausen Syndrome. “While the state Senate,” he said, “is working to restore public transportation cuts, the MTA has chosen to distort this fact in an effort to conceal its own budgetary failures.” The truth is that the State Senate voted to withdraw $143 million in what was supposed to be dedicated MTA revenues and use it in the state’s general fund instead. The MTA has highlighted this fact, and Peralta has taken exception to that reality. He isn’t alone.

In a post on the SILive.com politics blog that got lost over the July 4th weekend, Tom Wrobleski talks to some Staten Island reps about the state of transit funding, and their comments show an utter lack of preparedness and legislative understanding. The narrative is a simple one: Constituents facing election challenges are under fire for their willingness to vote away that $143 million and sit idly by while the MTA enacted a sweeping array of service cuts that hit Staten Island bus commuters particularly hard. I’ll let Wrobleski tell the story:

Republican Nicole Malliotakis took Assemblywoman Janele Hyer-Spencer (D-East Shore/Brooklyn) to task for the vote, but Ms. Hyer-Spencer wasn’t alone in voting to move the money. State Sen. Diane Savino and Assemblymen Mike Cusick and Matt Titone, Democrats all, also voted for the plan.

We don’t know if she’ll get any credit for this, but Ms. Savino (D-North Shore/Brooklyn) admitted that she wasn’t aware that the MTA money was part of the plan. “Most of us didn’t realize what was in that reduction plan,” she told us. “That’s the truth. Sometimes, you only see the big picture. The devil is in the details.”

Ms. Savino said that lawmakers were concerned with meeting the overall financial goal of reducing the state deficit when they cast their votes. “It should not have been done that way,” she said. “But it was done. We took $143 million in dedicated transit funding. That didn’t cause all the trouble, but it certainly made it worse.”

Ms. Savino said that had she been aware that the MTA money was part of the equation, she wouldn’t have voted in favor of the package. When asked how she would respond to those who say that it’s her job to know what’s in the legislation she votes for, Ms. Savino said, “It’s hard to argue with that. You have to sit and read every bill.”

Soak that in for a minute. Diane Savino, a six-year veteran of the State Senate, blindly voted for an appropriations bill that took $143 million away from transit simply because her party leadership told her to. She made no effort to investigate the money that would be shuffled around, and only after the fact, when the impact of her vote has become clear, does she sound at all remorseful.

At least Savino is willing to admit she’s wrong. Other representatives in Albany think that starving the MTA makes for sound financial policies. “Let’s not forget how much money they’ve wasted over the years,” Assemblyman Matt Titone said. “They’re standing there with folded hands because they don’t want to open their books.” The books are mostly open.

Assemblyman Mike Cusick went one step further than Titone and echoed the “two sets of books” line that grew stale when a judge found it had no merit in 2003. At least Cusick seemed to know for what he was voting. “It was a decision we had to make last year in order to get a balanced budget,” he said. “The argument can also be made that the MTA in past years ran that agency in a poor way. They had two sets of books. They spent money in wasteful ways. That argument could go back and forth.”

A few other Senators seemed to have a clue, and because New York State transit politics can make for strange bedfellows, those who knew what they were doing were a handful of state Republicans. “The last place that we should have looked to cut was OMRDD,” Senator Andrew Lanza said. “The second-to-last place was that MTA money. Among the first places on the chopping block was Staten Island.”

The reaction to these comments has been swift. The Staten Island Advance’s editorial board openly mocked those representatives who claimed either that they did not know what they were doing or thought the MTA deserved the raise. Cap’n Transit, in a piece in which he advises Republicans on a pro-transit election platform that the state GOP probably wouldn’t embrace, is appalled as well.

I don’t see this behavior changing though. In the memo attached to the station agent layoff prevention bill, the Assembly claims that there are no “fiscal implications” to the bill. Apparently, money to retain station agents will just fall from the sky and land in the MTA’s savings account. As long as Albany continues to hide its collective head in the sand and as long as Senators treat the New York City’s subway system as its own personal punching bag, we will be stuck with service cuts and fare hikes. The narrative — and the representation — in Albany has to change before we can move forward with the transit the city needs and deserves.

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Nathan H. July 7, 2010 - 2:02 am

What does Cusick’s “argument” that the MTA has been run poorly in the past, and his lie that they kept two sets of books, do to keep trains and buses running this year?

rhywun July 7, 2010 - 8:22 am

Legislators don’t read the bills they sign? I am shocked!

Benjamin Kabak July 7, 2010 - 8:24 am

Of course they don’t, but that’s why they pay staffers to read and summarize the bills. Voting on a massive appropriations bill as Albany did in December and having legislatures who don’t bother to look into what they’re appropriating is simply crazy.

BrooklynBus July 7, 2010 - 10:25 am

It’s even worse than that. In 1970, as part of a political science course, I sat in on an Assembly health committee meeting. One member did his homework. He summarized every bill and told the others how to vote. Every vote was unanimous. Everyone else was totally clueless. Some of the members slept. One kept falling asleep on my shoulder. I felt like I was in the subway sitting next to a drunk. He later became President of the City Council.

Benjamin Kabak July 7, 2010 - 10:26 am

That’s basically what the Assembly does today. Democrats vote as Sheldon Silver tells them to. What a mess.

Adam G July 7, 2010 - 12:56 pm

Though it’s not really like the Republican State Senate was any better.

Marc Shepherd July 7, 2010 - 10:41 am

There is one other thing these legislators miss.

Even if it is true that the MTA wasted money in the past, these are sunk costs. If your roof is leaking today, the fact that you wasted money on cigarettes and hookers is irrelevant. Learn from your mistakes, but in the meantime the roof needs fixing.

As it happens, I think the allegations of waste are vastly over-stated, but even if they are accepted as true, they are in the past, and cutting funding now doesn’t solve the problem.

Spencer K July 7, 2010 - 1:23 pm

They don’t call NY State government “three guys in a room” for nothing. It’s been like this for a long time, and it used to be “three guys in a closed room” when they started to get wise that people were getting angry at the lack of transparency. Now it’s on TV, but it changes nothing really.

More of these cheats need to be outted like Bruno (and hopefully Espada and Silver), before any change will really take shape.

John Paul N. July 9, 2010 - 3:07 pm

But who should take their place? It’s not like somebody else is going to be better, the way it seems to me at least.

John July 7, 2010 - 5:18 pm

Is all of this negotiable? Since the service reductions save the MTA $93 million, could they have voted to take away a smaller portion of the revenue dedicated to the MTA? Maybe if they had only taken away $50 million, we wouldn’t need these service reductions, or at least they would be much less severe.

Larry Littlefield July 7, 2010 - 8:56 pm

At least Savino is honest in this case.

Perhaps she’ll admit she didn’t fully understand the future implications of having the rest of the state borrow against the pension plans someday.

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