One of my favorite books while a little kid was a simple and clever story by Laura Numeroff called If You Give A Mouse A Cookie. It isn’t some tale of horror about NYC Department of Health inspection grades. Rather, it is a nicely-illustrated tale of a young boy who befriends a mouse by giving him a cookie and the consequences of that cookie. If he has a cookie, the mouse want some milk, and if he has milk, he wants to check the mirror to see if he has a milk mustache, but then he notices he needs a hair cut. And on and on and on.
While this mouse, which went on to spawn numerous other titles in the If You Give a ____ A ____ series, isn’t meant to be some parable for politicians passed on to little kids, the same thing applies. If you give a politician even a tiny slimmer of something he or she wants, she’ll demand the rest until there’s nothing left. Lately, the MTA has become a victim of just such a demand.
Our story begins a few years ago, when Albany approved a controversial package of taxes and fees designed to boost the MTA’s sagging bottom line. Instead of tying in a congestion pricing or bridge tolling plan with transit dollars, the state punted on the more sensible solution for a piece of legislation that included a substantial payroll tax on businesses in the counties served by the MTA. It was immediately unpopular, and numerous Republicans campaigned on a pledge of repeal.
Symbolically this year, the repeal passed the State Senate, but it was DOA in the Assembly. Despite his opposition to congestion pricing, Sheldon Silver knows the MTA needs money, and he wasn’t even going to entertain the idea of a payroll tax repeal. But then Gov. Andrew “I am the government” Cuomo got involved. In a comprehensive tax code overhaul, he jettisoned approximately 20 percent of the revenue from the payroll tax by eliminating the tax on businesses of a certain size. Somehow, he claimed, the MTA would get its money.
“Victory!” proclaimed the usual band of anti-payroll tax voices. As we know, they are cheering on the wrong thing, but they’ll learn the hard way once the MTA must cut services to make up the budget differential. After the initial euphoria of achieving this success wore off, it was time to fight anew. After all, if you give a representative a tax break, he’ll want another one.
And so now we have folks from Orange County issuing dire proclamations. “Not one business should be paying for this tax,” Chester Supervisor Steve Neuhaus, Crawford Supervisor Charles Carnes and Deerpark Supervisor Karl Brabenec all said in a joint statement. “Not one taxpayer should be paying this tax. Unfortunately, until this law goes away completely, they will continue to suffer.”
And we have folks from Hauppauge and Rockland County who want the tax fully repealed. Lee Zeldin, the voice of the repeal movement who has never had a better idea for MTA funding, held a victory rally and pledged to push forward for a full repeal. If you give an inch, someone will try to take a yard.
Of course, the MTA can’t afford to see more money taken away. That’s why the agency is so diligent in its actions and yet so political in its statements concerning state subsidies. As the MTA knows, just as when a bus line is cut so too when a subsidy is cut, it never returns. The state won’t reinstate the payroll tax, and every time it removes money that’s supposed to boost transit, the MTA has to figure out a way to reorganize its budget or cut services or raise fares or all three.
A few voices of reason have tried to reach through the din. One Nassau County writer chided the Governor for failing to identify an adequate alternate revenue source for the MTA before doing away with the payroll tax, and our mayor was even more strident in his critique. “You say, ‘Why should somebody upstate be paying for mass transit in the New York City region?’” he said. “The answer is, I suppose, the city is the economic engine of the state. We export money to other counties. They don’t quite see it that way, but that is in fact the way the funds go, and we’re all in this together.”
Perhaps the Mayor should tell that to his upstate compatriots. They’re too busy, though, asking for a glass of milk now that they’ve had that first bite of the cookie.