New York Civic: Freshman Blues By Henry J. Stern

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Tabloids Chide State Leaders, Senate Weighs MTA Rescue Without NYC Bridge Tolls

Today is the first anniversary of David's accession to the governorship, following the timely resignation of Eliot Spitzer. The New York Post is not pleased. In its lead editorial (p24), THE YEAR OF LIVING BLITHELY, the tabloid reviews what it calls “an embarrassing series of political, personnel and policy blunders.” The lede: “David Paterson’s incumbency, one year old today, demonstrates that nature will indeed tolerate a vacuum. But for how long?” In its rumination on the acceptability of emptiness, the Post takes issue with Aristotle’s observation.

The New York Post goes on: “Paterson is the first governor in a generation to have the luxury of a unified Legislature: He, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith are all Democrats. But, so far, nothing.” We inquire whether anything has ever happened in Albany before March 17. We point to the big league Democrats in Washington: Obama, Reid and Pelosi. They are unlikely to act in lockstep, representing as they do different constituencies and shades of ideology. Eventually, they will get together. It is in their mutual self-interest to hold the House and Senate.

Furthermore, Smith’s authority in the Senate is measured by his minuscule majority, 32-30, which means that one Democratic maverick can prevent any action. This precarious situation is described by columnist Bill Hammond, writing in today’s New York Daily News (p21), under the head MALCOLM’S MASSIVE MISTAKE. Hammond’s lede:

“It’s understandable that Democrats who took over the state Senate in January would crave revenge against Republicans who treated them like dirt for the previous 43 years. But relentlessly shutting the GOP out of decision-making – as Majority Leader Malcolm Smith is doing – is a huge strategic blunder.

“At a time when Albany needs to tackle one politically difficult task after another, Smith’s strict partisanship is a recipe for endless bickering and gridlock.”

Hammond makes another point. “Smith is repeating the blunder he made after the November election when he caved to demands from renegade Democrats – the so-called “three amigos” – who threatened to block his election as majority leader unless they were given leadership posts and other perks.

“I warned at the time that he was setting himself up to be shaken down before every tough vote. Now, that scenario is coming true with a vengeance."

Hammond had signaled his displeasure with Paterson three weeks ago, in a column headed: IS CHARLES IN CHARGE AGAIN? PATERSON BRINGING BACK O’BYRNE MAKES NO SENSE. The lede: “Gov. Paterson’s half-baked decision to bring Charles O’Byrne halfway back into his flailing administration looks like another train wreck in the making.” 

There was no train wreck because O’Byrne chose not to return, at least for now. He was fortunate to have escaped Albany once, which he never would have done if he had filed his income tax returns. This shows that good results (at least for O'Byrne) may arise from bad situations. Of course, the opposite is also true.

It is not fair for the press to find fault with Mr. Paterson and Mr. Smith, but leave the talented Mr. Silver unmentioned in their critiques. It is true that he is far more able, knowledgeable and secure than his fellow triumvirs, but there are issues of substance on which reasonable people would disagree if the arguments were clearly stated. The proposed repeal of the onerous Rockefeller drug laws appears to have gone much further than needed, resulting in a bill widely opposed by responsible law enforcement officials around the state.


Another potential dispute between the Senate and the Assembly lies in the plan, embraced by Speaker Silver, to impose tolls on New York's free bridges. Silver had opposed these tolls for years and prevented their approval, but in 2009 he reversed himself completely, coming out for a $2 toll which would cost a great deal to collect and be subject to subsequent increases. The Speaker had also supported the state's commuter tax for the benefit of New York City for many years, but reversed himself on May 17, 1999, when he shepherded its repeal through the Assembly, a decision that has cost the City of New York at least four billion dollars over the last ten years.

The imposition of tolls, which would divide the city into the rich borough and the four outliers who would have to pay to enter the scepter'd isle of Manhattan, is expensive to enforce, requiring an enormous bureaucracy or traffic-stopping toll booths. It also destroys a century old tradition of free access between the boroughs. Even the Staten Island ferry is now completely free.

If the toll scheme is ever implemented, it will postpone fiscal doomsday for the MTA by a year or so. The agency is not in control of its own costs. With the imposition of tolls, the speaker now looks responsible to the publishers and the business tycoons on the right, and the army of car-hating do-gooders on the left. Hopefully the senators will reflect the wishes of the people who elected them, stand firm and find another way to fund this year's MTA deficit. There remains, however, the strong possibility that the recalcitrant senators may be bought off by legal bribery – costly projects in their individual districts – a kind of profit sharing on the jobs that may or may not be strained from the park. We fall back on trusty Rule 14-F: “Follow the money.”

Some readers disagree with us on tolling the free bridges, and we see merit in arguments on both sides. We do not speak ex cathedra on this one. But for us, the question comes down to the principle of one city, and free access between its boroughs. Toll bridges are already available for those willing to pay for additional convenience and comfort. The remaining free bridges are part of the glue that keeps New York City together.

We should also consider the enormous expense of cameras, towers, censors, bill collectors, legal proceedings and the new bureaucracy which would have to be established and paid for before a penny of revenue is collected. And, if revenue is deemed insufficient, just raise the toll. London, which began with a 5 pound fee for downtown, now charges 12 pounds to enter a much larger area. You may not recall that the Federal income tax began in 1913 with a rate schedule of one to seven per cent. During World War II it went to 90 per cent. And if you charge for the bridges, what about the parkways? Aren’t the Grand Central and Henry Hudson Parkways worth something?

The proposal to charge $2 to go from the Bronx to Upper Manhattan is particularly onerous and unjust. Even congestion pricing, proposed in 2007, was limited to the busy hours between 6 am and 6 pm on weekdays. The 2009 version expands the proposed toll hours from 60 per week to 168 hours per week (24-7).  

Gone is the pretense about reducing traffic. Now the toll is simply a new tax – another way to gouge part of the population that is certainly not the elite, or the crowd where the company pays the tolls and the driver. 

People should understand what they are letting themselves in for if the bridges are tolled. Fiscal alternatives are easy to come by – raise the gasoline tax, or charge more to register SUVs and heavier cars. T
here would be no start up costs, no new and expensive machinery, no pursuit of individuals, just change the sum due. It is quite possible, however, that the legislature is likely to try to do that next year — after they have permanently and irrevocably imposed tolls. 

Another technique of the legislative leaders is to let a minority go "off the reservations" and dissent from tolls, as long as a majority supports the bill. That way everybody looks good, and isn't that the purpose of the legislature?

Again, if you disagree, shout out. We will print what you say.

Henry J. Stern writes as StarQuest. Direct email to him at Peruse Mr. Stern’s writing at New York Civic.

eHeziNew York Civic: Freshman Blues By Henry J. Stern

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