For the last few years, transit advocates have decried the state’s stealin’ ways. Last year, New York legislature approved a budget in early December that took $143 million in MTA money and removed it back to the general fund. Thus, the authority had to implement a sweeping array of service cuts in mid-2010. The same could very well happen again before the end of this year, and Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo seems to have no problem raiding the MTA.
In an effort to shore up the authority’s fiscal security, transit groups are searching for a solution. In California, a new measure approved by voters acts as a constitutional amendment that bars the state from moving money specific earmarked for one purpose to another. In effect, the West Coast leader in car use has created a transit lockbox well before the idea has gained significant political traction in New York state.
Now a new group called Reinvent Albany that is aiming to promote a fair, accountable and effective state government has issued a report urging Cuomo to protect dedicated transit funding through an Executive Order. As part of a report containing 11 EOs Cuomo could sign immediately to improve the state’s government, Reinvent Albany, run by John Kaehny for whom I’m doing an MTA budget project, has garnered of seven advocacy groups including the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Transportation Alternatives to sign for its lockbox order.
“These orders are tailor made for Governor Cuomo to use to launch his campaign to transform New York government,” said Kaehny. “Governor Cuomo will have enormous unilateral power to make government more open and accountable. The ball is in his court to do that.”
The order in question proposes in part:
1. The Executive Branch, including the Division, shall not request, recommend, or order appropriations, across-the-board cuts, or programmatic budgets, or any other action that diverts dedicated funds or dedicated revenue sources from the intended and sole purpose defined in the legislation that originally established them.
2. The Executive Branch, including the Division, shall propose a budget that transfers dedicated revenues directly to the dedicated funds, authorities or agencies they were enacted to support.
3. The Division shall not implement or propose across-the-board cuts that have the effect of diverting dedicated revenues from the dedicated funds, authorities or agencies they were enacted to support.
It would require the creation of “a clear and easily understandable description of how dedicated revenues and funds are raised and spent, highlighting and explaining the diversions of dedicated revenues and funds.” This information would be maintained on the New York State Division of Budget’s website for all to see.
In essence, such a move would inform voters of the MTA’s financial status and show how the actions and decisions of our elected representatives — the same representatives who bash the MTA over service cuts — lead to those service cuts. Now that the EOs are out there, it’s imperative that Cuomo gives the idea serious thought. He has said very little of any comfort on transit, and while an EO can’t replace legislative action, it can usher in better government and wiser choices. If not, the future of the MTA and transit in New York City may be a tenuous one indeed.
Gah! Please don’t use California as a model! Their budget situation is even worse than ours. A confluence of problems — not the least of which is all the ways the state is hamstrung in raising revenue and allocating budget. (Tax increases of almost any kind — from bonds to taxes and many types of fees — require a 2/3 majority vote at local or state level.) The state has had a series of voter-led initiatives since the late 1970s, which locks in all kinds of budget requirements. (Usually a percentage system.) From prisons to health care, there’s little room for actual budgeting. It’s bad when Albany moves money to the general fund and perhaps especially for agencies granted taxing authority is especially egregious. But having flexible does have benefits.
How does allowing the state the flexibility to rob from dedicated transit funds have any benefits whatsoever?
Think that mandating spending — or preventing moving funds to where things are also needed — causes more problems than need be. Basically it creates unbalanced spending. Because generally what happens in these situations is that debt is pushed up and deeper cuts are placed on programs without similar funding mandates (likely in our case to health and schools). In my parents homestate highway funds are similarly restricted. Gas taxes must all be used for roadbuilding (and without a state income tax, and no politically will to create one). This creates a situation where the state is in horrible financial situation, cutting education, health benefits, state pay (including teacher salaries) but meanwhile can build and rebuild a gleaming network of highways. And pay cash for all those projects. Would it be neat if the MTA was similarly blessed? Maybe. But I’m sure the rest of NY — including our public universities and strong health programs — would be significantly hampered.
Does your parents’ homestate collect taxes in one region of the state, ostensibly to support activities in that region of the state, only to divert that money to other regions? That’s what New York is doing.
Fundamental to good government is telling the truth and keeping promises. When it comes to diverting dedicated funds in New York State, your “flexibility” is lying and deception. Political and popular support for these taxes is based on their dedication to a singular purpose. The Payroll Mobility Tax would never have passed if not for the MTA budget crisis. If Albany wants to levy hire taxes to support the General Fund it should do so. Incidentally, in New York, our state government has siphoned off state university tuition to the general fund. So, a Governor’s Locked Box has lots of appeal to a wide range of people who believe that a promise is a promise. The legislature always has the right to repeal a dedicate tax and replace it with a non-dedicated tax. They never do. Why is that?
[…] to transit, the environment, roads and bridges,” John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, whose group has long called for a transit lockbox, said. “Creating a tax for a special purpose and then spending it on something else, is bad […]
It seems to be a big cash cow anyway.. the second Ave subway was thought of 80 years ago OBVIOUSLY whenever anyone need cash they rob it from this fund and the BIGGEST extortion is from the MTA everyone has dirty hands and the public suffers with cut-backs to service and increased fares… I am producing a skit the Man In The Hole…MITH… because the second ave is a myth…
MNN producer Penny Josephides