Lee Zeldin has made it his singular goal to eliminate the MTA payroll tax. He won his election as state senator representing the Third District on Long Island by campaigning on the issue and has spent a lot of time working toward a repeal. Despite the fact that the state GOP may wait until 2012 to throw its weight behind a repeal, Zeldin isn’t letting up.
Yesterday, Zeldin unveiled the latest in populist rage: a website. His new effort is online at DumpTheMTATax.com, and it features the typical petition and volunteer network that has become so popular with anti-tax, anti-service politicians. “I campaigned for office with an important purpose and promise,” Zeldin said in a press release. “My commitment has been to hold the MTA’s feet to the fire on behalf of the taxpayers of the 3rd Senate District. I will continue to shine a light on all of the ways the MTA can do more with less. My promise is not to rest until the legislature takes action to repeal the payroll tax.”
The new online initiative — actually a part of Zeldin’s own campaign website complete with a “donate” button — won’t gain much traction before the State Senate splits for the summer. So those of us who are fighting for mass transit dollars won’t need to worry too much about the MTA’s bottom line. We know the authority can’t afford to see $1.3 billion in state subsidies simply dry up, but Zeldin thinks he’s found the magic unicorn to solve this problem.
Take a look at how Zeldin thinks the MTA can save the money they currently take in from the payroll tax. He has a list:
- Eliminate overtime abuse – well over $400 million is spent on overtime annually;
- MTA should share in enforcement camera fines in MTA bus lanes;
- Competitive bidding/ privatization of NYC bus system;
- Public/private partnerships;
- Reduce outside litigation costs by increasing utilization of in-house attorneys or the NYS Attorney General’s office;
- Sell some of the MTA’s capital assets currently valued at over $50 billion;
- Reduce the cash and investment float, which amounts to billions;
- Reduce the amount of managers and supervisors, which is currently over 10,000 of the MTA’s 66,000 employees;
- Crack down on pension padding where possible;
- Cashless tolls throughout the system;
- Reduced “vacancy/absentee” coverage of MTA Bridges and Tunnels; and
- Improve process for approving personal and miscellaneous services contracts.
Now, on paper, these initiatives sound well and good, but the problem is that they aren’t new ideas. The MTA, for instance, has trimmed $150 million in overtime spending annually, and at some point, they can’t cut more overtime without incurring significantly more costs through more full-time hires. Overtime, in other words, can save money even as it sounds like a taboo expenditure that politicians exploit for populist points.
Outside of the overtime expenses, Zeldin’s suggestions either generate ones or millions of dollars or are one-off solutions that do not address the MTA’s long-term funding problems. Selling capital assets allows for an infusion of cash now, but once those assets are gone, they can’t be sold again. Cashless tolling will save some money initially, but the authority needs to find billions of savings, not millions.
I’m no fan of the payroll tax. If businesses find it to be a problematic barrier to expansion, the state should do away with it, and I wanted to see Ravitch’s proposals put in place. But what’s done is done. The Senate cannot overturn the payroll tax without offering a better solution, and so far, Zeldin has failed to do so. Reform and repeal will come with a price as money simply does not materialize on its own.