The Senate plays politics with the MTA

By · Published in 2011

Dean Skelos and the Republican Senate majority up in Albany know they have it good right now. As the Assembly is still controlled by Sheldon Silver and a Democrat sits in the Governor’s Mansion, the Republicans can pass a series of measures designed to fulfill promises made to constituents and interest groups without actually delivering on the policies. Lopsided bills will pass one house and not the other as State Senators can go back to their constituents to point out faux-accomplishments.

Of course, if either party or both parties in Albany are going to play politics with anything, it will be with the MTA, and the Republicans in the Senate did not disappoint. We first start with S04637. This is a fun bit of legislation in that it mandates that the MTA contract and pay out of pocket for a forensic audit with results delivered by January 1, 2013. If anything, it shows that the State Senators are learning.

Now, for much of the past few years, we’ve heard repeated calls for a forensic audit, and the term is a vague one. While Thomas DiNapoli as State Comptroller has the authority to straight-up audit the MTA, a forensic audit is one usually conducted at the target’s expense designed to root out not just wasteful practices but criminal expenditures. For example, a forensic audit would search for examples of embezzlement, fraudulently procured contracts and other types of criminal waste.

Within the past few months, a group of Independent Democrats have put out a call for a forensic audit. Citing the ever-popular “two sets of books” charge and begrudgingly admitting that the MTA’s budgeting process is far more transparent than it was eight years ago, the IDC claimed that the MTA should spend the $10 million because it might find evidence of improper spending practices that could lead to criminal charges, and it might find savings to cover the expenditures. It (perhaps rightly) doesn’t seem to trust the MTA, but as the politicians are the ones arguing for a forensic audit, shouldn’t they fund it too?

The point is largely a moot one; the Assembly isn’t likely to approve the forensic audit bill. In fact, the last time it did so, it expressly included language that required the state to pay for the audit, and the funds never materialized. Here, at least, the GOP in the Senate can say they tried as Jay Walder has continued to push for internal financial reform and a streamlined process of expenditures.

The forensic audit though is hardly the worst of the bills. The one that came out of the Senate concerning the payroll tax is. I briefly touched upon this bill yesterday, but it bears another look. Essentially, Lee Zeldin’s plan to repeal the payroll tax for the suburban counties while shifting the tax burden onto the city without identifying other equitable sources of revenue for the MTA cleared the Senate.

And, boy, was Zeldin pleased with himself. “I am very pleased to announce to my constituents, residents of Long Island and the rest of the 12-county MTA region that the state Senate has passed legislation to repeal the job-killing MTA Payroll Tax,” he said. “There is absolutely no doubt that the MTA, without increasing fares or cutting services, can balance its books after this legislation is implemented. One must question the motives and veracity of any individual or group that attempts to dispute this fact going forward.”

Except there is doubt. It’s impossible for the MTA to find $1.5 billion in annual savings without significantly curtailing services or jacking up the fares. In a classic political twist, he blames those who would dare defend transit subsidies or the MTA’s budget. Now, I don’t care much for the payroll tax, but I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the MTA’s budget documents. This is not an agency that can cut an additional $1.5 billion out of its $12 billion budget. Between debt payments, fixed operating costs and employee costs, the savings just aren’t there, no matter how stridently Zeldin claims them to be.

Another State Senator issued an equally laughable claim. “It’s time for the MTA to stop balancing its budget on the backs of hard-working New Yorkers,” Senator Greg Ball said. Does he think by raising the fares the MTA won’t also be balancing the budget on actual hard-working New Yorkers who can’t afford automobiles and soon won’t be able to afford monthly rail passes? Does Ball think only non-hard-working New Yorkers would suffer from service cuts or fare hikes? Do politicians in Albany doubt our ability to think critically?

To make matters worse, the Republicans tied in the payroll tax repeal with a measure for which advocates have been pushing: a transit lockbox. In the same bill as the repeal, the lockbox, which I discussed in May, cleared the Senate. So with one hand, the State Senate is supporting transit while with the other hand and in the same piece of legislation, they are robbing transit.

Ultimately, this piece of legislation doesn’t matter much in the short term. Sheldon Silver has said that the payroll mobility tax isn’t going anywhere. He at least recognizes that to remove the tax revenue would require a different source of funds, albeit congestion pricing, bridge tolls or much higher fares, and that’s not a conversation he’s ready or willing to have right now. But the moves tonight provide a glimpse into the thinking of those in charge, and it’s clear that no one is willing to lead on transit with good, sound, practical policy ideas. It’s only about scoring points with constituents while the millions of people who need the buses and subways and commuter rail lines are looked down upon and ignored.

Categories : MTA Politics

11 Responses to “The Senate plays politics with the MTA”

  1. Lawrence Velázquez says:

    Assholes. That’s all I have to say about this circus.

  2. Bolwerk says:

    Encourage OPTO? Pension and overtime reforms? Work rule changes? Some very sensible cost savings are no-brainers, and those who hate the unions should only agree. Republikans aren’t the smartest people usually, but even they must know that.

    That kind of hints, to me, that this financing stuff isn’t about saving money or fixing the economy or anything. It’s about schadenfreude. They actually take pleasure in people suffering longer commutes and spending more to get around.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    The state legislature always plays politics, with everything. Good government is anathema to it; if public services work, there’s no longer any need for politicians to get credit for minuscule improvements and pork.

  4. Chris G says:

    And it is time to start with those other funding mechanisms. Congestion pricing, no more free crossings into Manhattan, etc.

    Currently the fares on MNRR are such that it is cheaper out of pocket that day for me to drive into the city most times when I have to go. Currently running $21 dollars round trip it is easier for me to drive. This should never be the case. They should toll the free crossings. They should have congestion pricing to make it so when I drive I am shelling out at least a good portion of that just to drive instead of taking the train.

    • Justin says:

      Congestion pricing alone will not save the MTA’s budget, not if the state is cutting back on other sources. The MTA, even with congestion pricing, will still end up having to raise fares and cut service, so it will still end up being a deal where one might as well drive from the suburbs into the city. Keeping public transportation cheap is not a priority for Albany, as most New Yorkers (Statewide) are not using public transportation……………

  5. Ian says:

    Suburban shortsightedness at its best. Thankfully, we are not in a state election year.

  6. Larry Littlefield says:

    They should hire me to do the audit.

    Just include enough money to send it to all the people of the state.

    And money for additional lamp posts for those people to hang current and former members of the legislature from after they’ve read it.

  7. Max Byron says:

    In the mid-nineties a Georgian immigrant bought the building at 2 Broadway for $20 million. He then leased it to the MTA for 49 1/2 years. The MTA put $500 million into renovations for the building. A building they don’t even own. Need more be said about the folly of handing over money to the MTA? Corruption is rampant. Incompentence is rampant. Mismanagement is rampant. Patronage is rampant. Cronyism is rampant. The MTA is a public agency that exploits the public and disrespects its charter.

    • Alex C says:

      That’s all well and nice. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’ve now lost $1.5 billion in revenues. You could turn the MTA into a Utopian-level efficient and honest agency and it wouldn’t cover those losses.

  8. Peter says:

    I hereby declare that Zeldin is a cheap, political hack, and further do hereby declare,

    “One must question the motives and veracity of any individual or group that attempts to dispute this fact going forward.”


  1. […] when the Republican-controlled State Senate voted to repeal the payroll tax, I accused them of playing politics poorly with the MTA. I’ve already explained why Sen. Lee Zeldin’s fiscal claims are pure fantasy, and […]

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