State Sen. Andrew Lanza Defends Stance on MTA Rescue

lanza.jpg

State Senator Andrew Lanza called this afternoon in response to yesterday’s post about his MTA rescue stance. He first took issue with the characterization of Senate Republicans as "refusing to budge" on a transit funding plan, saying that his conference has effectively been shut out of the process. "If they wanted to come forward with an MTA rescue package," he said of the Democratic leadership, "there’s not a thing a Republican can do."

I agreed that the Democratic majority shoulders most of the responsibility for the current impasse, but when I suggested that he could have stepped forward to support the Ravitch plan, Lanza disputed the implication that he should be asked to support a pre-existing solution and reiterated his opposition to a payroll tax.

We had a long exchange about the root of the MTA’s financial troubles, which I’ll try to summarize as concisely as possible with minimal editorial comment.

He started by claiming that his criticism of the MTA is "not just bashing."

"The MTA comes forward every year almost in shock as to their budget
situation," he said. "They have proven that
they don’t have a handle on their own finances." I argued that this was due mainly to the volatility of their current revenue streams, which the Ravitch plan would help to address.

Lanza rebutted with a call for transparency and accountability. "They do not present documents in a way according
to generally accepted accounting principles," he said. "A rescue plan means that taxpayers pony up. I think it’s fair to ask,
"What are you doing with the money?’" (I’m not a CPA, but the Deloitte and Touche staffers who went over the most recent MTA financial statement available online [page 3 of this PDF] say that their review, while not rising to the level of an audit, found it to be "in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.")

I asked about the imminent downgrading of the MTA’s bond rating. That’s going to cost taxpayers — and they’ll only get higher debt payments out of it, not better transit service — so why not incorporate any transparency reform into the plan itself, instead of holding a rescue hostage to the precondition of a forensic audit? Lanza suggested that this would delay the changes he wants to see. "We always say transparency and accountability would be nice, but we never do anything about it."

What stuck with me more than anything was Lanza’s criticism of the Democratic leadership. By blaming Republicans, he said, "all they’re looking for is political cover." Fair enough, but is anyone in Albany looking for something better?

  • Glenn

    All Lanza (and 90% of Staten Islanders, where I grew up) really cares about is the Verrazano Narrows Bridge tolls PERIOD It’s the third rail of SI politics.

    Everything else is just a smokescreen. Ask him how it will look for him if he has to defend his inaction in preventing a $3 rise in the V-N bridge tolls?

    Anyone running against him has a very easy issue. “The Ravitch or Silver plan would have not only avoided the bridge tolls, but would have kept express bus fares the same as well. Your current elected official seems to have no juice in getting anything done upstate, even when he could have crossed party lines to get something done that would have been popular in his home district. Instead, Mr. Lanza (sorry, SENATOR Lanza) choose to stand with his party over you the people who elected him”

    Senator Lanza, call Liz Krueger (and some of your upstate buddies) and start a bi-partisan NY State Senate coaliation to freeze the bridge tolls.

  • Glenn

    I meant, “freeze the V-N bridge toll”

  • Larry Littlefield

    “in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

    That’s the problem. Those principles assumes a firm is in good shape if it could shut down and pay off all its creditors. But the MTA is not a firm, and cannot shut down without destroyng the economy of three states.

    Nowhere on its balance sheet does the obligation to continue to provide mass transit services at a loss into the indefinate future appear as a liability. I know, I’ve looked.

    If that liability had been on the balance sheet, it would be clear that the MTA could not go deeper and deeper into debt to fund ongoing normal replacement, until all available revenues went for debt service and ongoing normal replacement had to stop.

    Why? Because the assumption is that all those tax revenues would continue to come in and pay off the MTA’s pension and debt obligations even if the system degraded and collapse, and that ain’t so.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Reality check Glenn, no one is coming out of the woodwork to primary Lanza.

    Another dose of reality is that the bridge is only part of the transportation program from the Rock. What about the Gowanus Expressways eternal construction and maintenance expenses being born by everyone else. Let all the other roads in the city rot so that thing can be maintained into eternity. There are many good tunnel proposals to take that operating cost down to reasonable levels, all affordable with a little toll on that “limited access” roadway (really and on-ramp for the VZ). Staten Islanders love to use Brooklyn streets and highways for free and then cry about the bridge tolls even though they pay half of what Brooklyn does.

  • Glenn

    That’s not the view from Staten Island. All they know is that they have to pay to use all the bridges that connect to the Island. They’ll have a fit if you even suggest trying to make the V-N toll even in both directions. They’ll go on about how the bridge has been paid for 10x over, how they get crappy bus service (which is really due to low density) and all the roads are inadequate on the island. It’s an emotional issue on the island and it’s why they feel like they are not integrated into the city like the free bridges that connect the other four boroughs. Toll them all and they would actually make them feel better and more equal.

    But a state Senator that doesn’t act to keep the V-N toll frozen…while the other bridges remain free…that’s a cause for a voter revolt and that’s why Senator Lanza’s even speaking up at all about this.

  • Sounds to me like Lanza’s just being a mouthpiece for the Grand Ol’ Party’s typical talking points. No matter how many financial documents the MTA makes available, no matter how many open public hearings that they have, these State Senators are pushing “transparency and accountability” as though its some Holy Grail. I don’t believe for a minute the Senators would know what to do with full transparency.

    Anyway, if they’re so concerned with accountability, why didn’t Republicans do anything during the years they were in the Senate Majority? The MTA is a state-chartered authority. Nothing is stopping the Senate from requesting more of this so-called accountability.

    It’s nice of Lanza to respond, but it sounds just like more party-line mumbo jumbo than anything else.

  • streetsblogcommie

    Madoff’s firm was audited and said to be in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America. Fried, you have failed again.

  • Glenn

    And contrary to what Nicolo might think, Lanza’s by no means fully entrenched in his electability…

    Lanza was first elected in 2006, taking only 57 percent of the vote against Democrat Matt Titone after narrowly winning a GOP primary against former Republican chairman Bob Helbock

    He had a weaker challenger this round in 2008 and won with 70% of the vote.

    This is potentially a competitive district and after redistricting will probably encompass more of the North shore of Staten Island which is heavily Democratic. If Titone had a good issue like bridge tolls to run on against him, he could be beaten.

  • Anon

    MTA Posts every board meeting and mta finance committee meeting online as per law… Gary Dellaverson the CFO spoke very well at the last few meetings.
    Politicians Want transparency? Perhaps they should just point and click.
    I would wager anyone who has said the MTA is not transparent hasn’t simply watched a board meeting.
    Put blinders on and stick your fingers in your ears and of course there’s no transparency.

    The public speaking session always makes it worth watching!
    😉

    http://www.mta.info/mta/webcasts/archive.htm

  • vnm

    Put blinders on and stick your fingers in your ears and of course there’s no transparency.

    Anon, exactly. Unfortunately, the loudest voices in this entire debate have been those of the least educated or willfully ignorant about transportation policy and finance. People with a deep understanding of the importance to mass transportation to a regional economy, and how it can be financed like Richard Ravitch, Lee Sander, Kathy Wylde, Bob Yaro, Kate Slevin have all been drowned out by the Fare Hike Four and others spouting parochial interests.

    And it is emblematic of how broken Albany is that it can actually help a politician to subvert the interests of the regional common good.

    Take for example the on-its-face ridiculous statement by Lanza that the existence of free East River bridges shows that the MTA treats Staten Islanders unfairly. What’s the result? A few policy wonks here on Streetsblog get a good hearty laugh because we know that the MTA has been supporting the Ravitch Commission recommendations and fighting to toll the East River bridges, and that Lanza’s colleagues in the Senate are the ones who have fought to keep them free. But the average person on the street who is a constituent of Lanza and who doesn’t know any better because he or she hasn’t had time to follow this debate closely, now hates the transit agency even more. He/she hears an authority figure bashing a slow-moving and easy target and now is even more disinclined to pursue an MTA rescue package (not because it is bad policy, but for angst against the agency itself).

    By spreading misinformation either cynically (on purpose), or because he truly is misinformed, Lanza has placed himself as a savior fighting for his constituents at the expense of the regional greater good.

    Fix Albany now!

  • Because there is no mass movement against private-auto subsidy, these transit-killers can appear reasonable and responsible. The auto-system is economically unsustainable, yet on and on it goes, against the will of the majority, even as the oil and gas-pipeline wars rage, the Antarctic ice breaks up, and the economy sinks. Fortunately the movement for free public transit is steadily growing.

  • If that’s true, streetsblogcommie, then Lanza had better not incorrectly accuse Madoff of “not present[ing] documents in a way according to generally accepted accounting principles” as he has the MTA. That would be wrong.

  • Aaron Berkman

    He’s right. The tail is wagging the dog. The MTA makes up unneeded and expensive priorities and puts the burden of paying them on the outer boroughs which are getting no benefit of the MTA’s spending. It is long past time to break up the MTA all together so that we don’t have to hear the repeated lies that we have only 2 choices, tolls on NYC streets or no service.

    Aaron

  • Aaron Berkman

    Time to call your state elected officials and tell them your sick of the MTA lies and debt. Tell them to break up the MTA.

  • Aaron Berkman: “…the outer boroughs which are getting no benefit of the MTA’s spending.”

    Dude, look at a subway map. This post indicates the limitations of the Big Lie technique.

  • Anne M.H.

    Just because a document conforms to generally accepted accounting principles does not make it readable or understandable — not to me, a non-accountant, and not to the public in general. The MTA is asking for public support, but it hasn’t explained the financials in a way the public can understand. The only response when people ask uninformed questions is something along the lines Aaron suggests — quit complaining, or we’ll shut down your services. That was the LIRR’s response yesterday. The rail road announced it would close Belmont service except on race days. It’s always a threat, instead of a reasoned plan that the average person can understand. We should ask more of our government. Barack Obama is making reasonable arguments that average people understand, and his challenges are a lot bigger than the MTA’s.

  • vnm

    Actually, Anne, there has never been LIRR service to Belmont on non-race days. Why would there be? The LIRR announcement, in clear black-and-white text, was that there would be no service ON game days. The exception is one day a year, the Belmont Stakes triple crown race.

  • Anne M.H.

    I don’t think you’re reading that correctly, vnm. It says there is normally seasonal service after April 29, but now the service will only run until the race on June 6. It’s in black and white, but it’s far from clear.

    Anyway, my point is that the MTA deals in threats. Please focus on the substance of the main argument, not the minor details.

  • Your argument that the MTA must present its finances in such a way that people with no training or—heretofore—interest in accounting can understand them? I’m not sure what you’re expecting. Please give an example of another authority or government agency that explains “the financials in a way the public can understand”. You can not just compare the MTA to Barack Obama and find it lacking.

  • Anne M.H.

    The city’s Independent Budget Office writes opinions on mayoral and city council budgets that are understandable to anyone who has had some grammar school training in math and English. Why would anyone need training to understand a budget, if it’s presented clearly enough? Just translate it from accountant-speak into English. Describe the trade-offs that would be needed for each different course of action. New Yorkers are plenty smart enough to understand.

  • I should like to think so. And as far as I can tell, this document is in English.
    http://www.mta.info/mta/budget/feb2009/0209_1.pdf

  • And as I’m sure you know, the IBO does write about the MTA from time to time.

    “Due to a debt restructuring in the early part of this decade, the MTA’s ability to issue additional bonds backed by existing revenue streams is severely limited. The Ravitch Commission proposals for tolling the Harlem and East River bridges and levying a new regional payroll tax would have allowed the MTA to support future capital improvements through the issuance of bonds backed by these revenue sources.”
    http://www.ibo.nyc.ny.us/cgi-park/?p=45

  • Red

    To be fair, it’s really only been in the last three or four years that the MTA has become so transparent relative to some other government organizations. It certainly does not have a history of being accountable or available to the public.

    Still, “threats”? Characterizing the MTA’s tone as a threat is an indication that you haven’t paid any attention to what MTA board members and staff have actually been saying over the past two years.

  • Anne M.H.

    Nathan, if you already know about the IBO, then why ask me for an example? I believe that the IBO is limited to oversight of city agencies, and the MTA is a state agency. Maybe the IBO comments on NYC Transit?

    Red, I have paid way more attention than I want to. I do think that compared to what I conceive of as “managing” or “planning,” the MTA deals in crises, emergencies and threats.

  • Ian Turner

    Anne, you’re entitled to that opinion, but you haven’t given much evidence to indicate that your opinion matches reality.

  • Anne M.H.

    How about the fact that the MTA comes back to the legislature with emergency spending needs every year or two? What sort of way is that to run a railroad?

  • No Anne, I must thank you for pointing me to the IBO’s well written reports which I then searched for “mta”. The IBO is not an example of a government agency or authority outperforming the MTA in reporting on its own budget; I’m still waiting on that one. But as an independent agency specifically charged with clearly and concisely reporting on other agencies including the MTA (in fact if not theory), the IBO is providing exactly the information you say you want. What’s the problem?

  • Ian Turner

    Anne,

    The MTA has been systematically underfunded, and the leadership has lied about it as a condition of unemployment. In this much I will agree that the organization is mismanaged. But I don’t see why any of that would be a reason to exacerbate that underfunding.

  • Anne M.H.

    Nathan, this is more inconsequential fluff, of the kind vnm indulges in. Your sentences are convoluted, and I can’t understand what they mean. Are they supposed to be sarcastic? Tone of voice does not come through in a blog post.

    Look, I have been reading Streetsblog for exactly a week. I get that the majority here is drinking the MTA Kool-Aid. That’s fine with me, I will take my interest to a more even-handed blog. I’m looking for debate, not nit-picking.

  • I have responded to your argument, and you’ve resorted to attacking me and what you perceive as Streetsblog’s primary readership. Socrates would not be pleased, Anne.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

MTA Blame Game: The View from Staten Island

|
Here’s State Senator Andrew Lanza, a Staten Island Republican, explaining why he supports tolls on the East River bridges. For Staten Island drivers looking at a $3 hike in cash tolls to cross the Verrazano (or a $1.32 hike for locals with E-ZPass), the sight of other motorists getting a free pass into Manhattan must […]

In Albany, Tuesday’s Election Probably Maintained the Status Quo

|
A few races are still too close to call, but it looks as though Republicans will maintain control of the State Senate next year, likely preserving an alliance with the growing Independent Democratic Conference. The outcome means that Albany will by and large remain a challenging but not impossible political landscape for advocates seeking to make streets safer […]

Jim Brennan: It’s Okay to Fund Transit With Fees on Driving

|
A reader forwards this email from Assembly member Jim Brennan’s office, apparently sent in response to the "Keep New York Moving" petition in support of an MTA rescue plan: Thank you for your email regarding the MTA. the Ravitch Commission has identified that that the MTA faces a combined capital budget and operating deficit shortfall […]