Home MTA Politics ‘If you give a mouse a cookie…’

‘If you give a mouse a cookie…’

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Adirondacker12800 December 19, 2011 - 12:46 am

Yes .34 % is outrageously onerous. One third of one percent. 6 and 8/10ths of a cent per hour for someone making 20 dollars an hour. $2.72 a week or $141.44 a year.
Nassau doesn’t like paying, I guess the place the MTA cuts service is on the LIRR. Or what do LIRR fares rise to, to get to the same farebox recovery that the subways get? How about stopping work on East Side Access? Rockland doesn’t like paying it they can fund rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge out of tolls. If I did the arithmetic correctly around 30 dollars round trip. No need to restore service on the Port Jervis line either. And NJTransit can run the trains to Suffern and charge 100% farebox recovery for people who aren’t residents of New Jersey with government issued ID to prove it.

ajedrez December 19, 2011 - 10:41 am

The Tappan Zee Bridge isn’t being funded by the MTA, and I don’t think any of the payroll tax goes to NJT.

Bolwerk December 21, 2011 - 5:33 pm

There is, of course, a third way: take a sledgehammer to LIRR work rules. It probably should be done anyway, but the legislature doesn’t care to do it through mandates.

Frank B. December 19, 2011 - 12:51 am

That’s actually a very brilliant analogy.

I’m waiting on Cuomo to see if by some miracle he remembers that the MTA will need different funding to make up the money he has cut.

I am also hoping, by some miracle, Cuomo and Sheldon Silver suddenly think congestion pricing is a good idea.

pea-jay December 19, 2011 - 1:12 am

The title and lead off sentence got me prepped to expect to read another story about the subway rat situation…

Ray December 19, 2011 - 7:11 am

A few responses: This governor has kept his promises, and the characterization of Cuomo as “I am the government” is unjustified. It’s the Executive branch’s job to lead. When I see both Skelos and Silver standing by the Governor’s side he’s doing just that. I’d argue its a nice change from the chaos we’ve had over the last decade.

Next, this isn’t a repeal, it’s a 17% adjustment which relieves small businesses, the self employed and exempts organizations the state was rebating anyway (schools). As you said, on Dec 5th, the tax is secure (generating post adjustment $1.25 billion for the MTA).

In fairness, don’t some suburban counties have a point? Why do Rockland workers pay as much as Kings, Nassau or Westchester? Are the MTA services in those counties the same? (And I say this as carless Manhattan resident.)

And aren’t the fixes within the MTA itself? Is it not true that LIRR riders pay 47.8 percent of the railroad’s operating costs while NYC Transit riders are on the hook for 58.6 percent? And at the same time isn’t it true that the LIRR has one of the worst operating cost performances per passenger (among America’s top 10 railroads), with MetroNorth not far behind? So why not attack costs and/or raise LIRR or MN fares to adjust?

And while we’re discussing, there are certainly further cost savings in the agency. I didn’t have to spend more than a minute and I found $56 million from last year’s budget – (Thomas DiNapoli’s August 2010 Audit of Overtime – 3200 workers made an additional 50% of their salary in OT – that’s bad management!!).

Seems to me this is a conversation among suburbanites about their suburban service – and that’s the way the MTA should approach it. If the source of funding doesn’t reappear, NYC Transit and Bus operations should be untouched. I think we can count on Mayor Bloomberg to make sure that’s the case. I’m even less pessimistic we’ll be harmed with Joe Lhota at MTA and Patrick Foye at the PA.

Alex C December 19, 2011 - 8:55 am

Unfortunately he also downed the Transit Lockbox bill, and continues the now-standard tradition of taking dedicated MTA funds away from the MTA and dispersing them throughout the state budget. The MTA has lost hundreds of millions of dollars this way already and Cuomo has made it clear he will continue to raid its budget.

Andrew December 19, 2011 - 10:55 pm

On top of what Alex C says, making minor adjustments to commuter rail fares won’t solve the problem.

Overtime isn’t bad management if it’s cheaper than the alternative of hiring additional bodies.

Billy G December 19, 2011 - 8:13 am

The payroll tax should never have existed in the first place.

Raise the fares to the point where the costs are covered. Make the users pay their way.

pea-jay December 19, 2011 - 9:17 am

Only when vehicle owners pay 100% of their use of the road network and airline passengers pay 100% of operating the aviation infrastructure

Larry Littlefield December 19, 2011 - 9:35 am

“Raise the fares to the point where the costs are covered. Make the users pay their way.”

And raise the price charged for road space to the point where everyone gets the same benefit from space that belongs to everyone. You want me not to have my car take up more of it? Pay me rent.

Larry Littlefield December 19, 2011 - 8:56 am

They started taking those cookies in the early 1990s. The MTA started borrowing like mad to fund them.

And the Senate Republicans aren’t the only mouse. We’re basically ruled by a pack of rats.

Andrew December 19, 2011 - 10:58 pm

I don’t think it was sensible at all. Ravitch recommended both a payroll tax and bridge tolls, and he explicitly said that the two had to go together. Enacting only a payroll tax places too much of the burden on the suburbs, which, while certainly reliant on the transit system, are not reliant on it nearly as heavily as the city is.

Frankly, I never liked the idea of the payroll tax to begin with.

Alon Levy December 19, 2011 - 10:59 pm

Here is how they do things in Paris. Which region do you think will be able to complete projects with less political meddling – New York or Paris?

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines December 20, 2011 - 9:00 am

[…] Emboldened Transit Know-Nothings Want Cuomo to Finish the Job, Kill Payroll Tax (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Today’s Headlines | Body Local NYC December 20, 2011 - 11:00 am

[…] Emboldened Transit Know-Nothings Want Cuomo to Finish the Job, Kill Payroll Tax (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

After payroll tax cut, Moody’s casts wary eye on MTA bonds :: Second Ave. Sagas December 20, 2011 - 12:14 pm

[…] New York lawmakers push for a full payroll tax repeal with nary a nod toward its impact on the region’s transportation or economy, bond ratings are […]

Nathanael January 2, 2012 - 1:50 am

If the legislature would stop gerrymandering we might have a chance of getting a better crop of legislators. Fat chance, right?…

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[…] and his allies in Albany signalled a willingness to give, and opponents of the tax were likely to demand an even greater repeal. Now, that prediction is becoming a […]


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