With nary a public hearing, a commissioned study or much advanced warning, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the MTA Payroll Tax repeal into law yesterday afternoon. With the stroke of the pen, the Governor has followed in the footsteps of his predecessors who refused to guard the MTA’s dedicated revenue funds, and he stripped $320 million in annual funding from the MTA’s budget. It was a dark, dark day for the city’s five million daily straphangers who rely on constant service and affordable fares to power the city’s and the state’s economy.
As the dust settles from last week’s surprise announcement concerning this revenue stream, transit advocates remain dismayed. Cuomo, as Transportation Nation’s Jim O’Grady and Colby Hamilton noted, claims the lost money will be replaced “dollar for dollar.” That’s a lofty claim for a governor who has silenced congestion pricing supporters and seems disinclined to invest in transit. Will that money be replaced on a one-time basis for 2012? Will Cuomo identify a new semi-permanent revenue stream that will help shore up the MTA’s budget? Right now, no one knows.
Even before the ink dried on the bill, though, State officials, nearly all from the Republican Party, were toasting the end of this so-called “job-killing” tax. It’s a tiring and wrong point, one I’ve debated numerous times over the past few years, but that didn’t stop the usual gang of New Yorkers from patting themselves on the back. “I want to thank Governor Cuomo and my legislative colleagues for their partnership to help begin repealing the job-killing MTA Payroll Tax,” Sen. Lee Zeldin, one of the most egregious payroll tax opponents said. “The MTA Payroll Tax has been damaging our economy and restricting the growth of quality jobs in New York. Repealing this tax for all small businesses and schools, and reducing the rate for others, spurs real economic development and helps put New York State on the path towards prosperity.”
“The MTA payroll tax has been an enormous burden on businesses and today we are lifting that burden. More than 290,000 small businesses will now have a greater opportunity to invest in their businesses and invest in creating new jobs,” Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said.
The one Democrat who offered a comment seemed to fail to understand the role transit funding plays in the region. “The reduction and, in some cases, elimination of the payroll tax is a step in the right direction,” Assemblyman Kevin Cahill said “I have been fighting against this unfair tax since its inception, and this brings us closer to doing away with it entirely. While the MTA is important to our state and plays a significant role in our economy, the payroll tax placed an undue burden on underserved Hudson Valley communities, making them responsible for a system from which they receive no benefits.”
No benefits! Hudson Valley, a part of New York State, which is largely supported by New York City, which relies on the MTA for economic success, supposedly receives no benefits from the MTA. It’s a laughable thing to claim in public, and I have to wonder what Assemblyman Cahill thinks of his constituents’ collective intelligence.
Even without such absurd statements from Hudson Valley, Zeldin’s claims hit closer to home. Somehow, funding the MTA is “damaging our economy and restricting the growth of quality jobs in New York.” Zeldin should talk to Brooklyn merchants who see their business decline by 80 percent when the MTA doesn’t provide adequate transit service to their areas. Perhaps Zeldin should read Charles Komanoff’s assessment of the impact of the tax cut. He argues how the $320 million in lost revenue will make travel slower and our roads more congested as transit cutbacks drive subway riders to more frequent use of cars and cabs. That — and not some job-starved desolate landscape — is the future of the city without an adequately funded MTA.
Now that suburban interests have succeeded in rolling back over a fifth of the MTA’s projected payroll tax revenue, the answer should be simple: Make the suburban counties pay for it. As long as the city and its business owners continue to pay the payroll tax, the money should prop up New York City Transit’s buses and subways first and the commuter rails later, if there’s enough left to spread around. Then, perhaps, these suburban representatives will start to learn how much the MTA means to them and their constituents. That — or some congestion pricing plan with dedicated transit revenues — seems to me to be the only far way to ensure that key services are maintained in light of an even higher and more crushing debt.