Yesterday, City Council transportation committee chair Jimmy Vacca and leading transportation advocates sent a letter to New York state’s current leadership urging them not to raid the MTA’s dedicated funds to close an impending $315 million budget deficit.
As long as the MTA’s finances are vulnerable to Albany incursions, transit riders will be at risk. The $143 million that legislators stole last December would have covered every NYC subway and bus cut enacted this year. The $315 million midyear budget gap could lead to another transit raid in the $20 million range before the year is out, if Governor Paterson convenes a lame duck special session and Albany repeats the same sort of heist it pulled off this fall.
Is there anything more concrete that can be done besides asking Albany to stop?
A single law passed by the legislature would not be enough. The only ironclad way to prevent the state from raiding dedicated funds is a constitutional amendment. “You would need an amendment for a policy in perpetuity,” said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers’ Campaign. “A legislature cannot bind the next one coming in.”
There is a very recent precedent for this course of action — on the other side of the country. California voters, facing even more severe transit raids than New York, put a stop to the practice by approving Prop 22 in a referendum last Tuesday. Prop 22 is a constitutional amendment that forbids the state from raiding any dedicated local sales taxes. The problem had gotten so out of control that the amendment is expected to restore $1.8 billion to transit every year, according to Streetsblog San Francisco.
The constitutional option, however, isn’t on the table in New York — at least not in the near future. “That’s an extreme,” said Russianoff. “Amending the constitution is not an easy thing to do.” In California, constitutional amendments like Prop 22 pass via referendum all the time. In New York, a constitutional amendment requires either a constitutional convention or majority votes from two consecutive legislatures followed by a referendum. “This issue’s going to remain with us,” concluded Russianoff.
The remaining options lack the same strength but could make transit raids less likely for now.
Russianoff argued that getting Andrew Cuomo on the record against these raids would change the entire political calculus of the issue.
In New York, the governor begins the budget process when he releases his executive budget, which is then modified and passed into law by the legislature. That gives the governor the power to set the agenda and make raiding transit more politically costly. “If the new governor-elect Andrew Cuomo says that he’s going to respect using these dedicated funds for the purposes for which they were enacted,” Russianoff said, “I find it hard to see how the legislature would overturn that.”
Raising the political cost of transit raids also hinges on making transit funding a political issue and holding elected officials accountable. “That’s one of the main goals of the Rider Rebellion,” said Transportation Alternatives’ Noah Budnick. “So that legislators know they’ll be held responsible if they steal money from transit riders.”
Vacca argued that vigilant watchdogging is necessary, and its absence was a big part of the reason past raids were allowed to happen. “Many of the legislators who voted on the sweeps didn’t realize what they were voting on,” he explained. “I don’t want to hear that same excuse this year.”
Vacca also put forward two off-the-cuff and unconventional ideas that might stop raids more systematically. If there were some way of allowing the MTA to collect dedicated revenues directly, he said, that would stop the raids. (Dedicated transit taxes are currently collected by the state before the MTA receives the revenue.) “I don’t know if that could be done or should be done,” he said.
Vacca also said that it was time to take a look at the MTA’s public authority status “very honestly, from an accountability point of view.” He noted that Cuomo said during the campaign that the governor should be responsible for the MTA, suggesting that some sort of revision to the MTA’s authority status might be under consideration.
For now, it looks like the threat of another Albany transit raid will be highest after Cuomo assumes office, not before the end of the year as previously believed. Vacca and transit advocates wrote their letter to state leaders in response to an AP story that reported that “Budget Director Robert Megna said the $315 million shortfall in the current budget must be addressed by Dec. 31.”
However, budget office spokesman Erik Kriss said that Megna had meant “must” in the sense of “really ought to,” not “is legally mandated to.” Governor Paterson believes it’s his responsibility to pass a balanced budget on to the next administration, explained Kriss, but since the state’s fiscal year doesn’t end until March 31, the deficit can remain until then.
And with recounts keeping the State Senate busy, it looks like the budget gap won’t get plugged until Cuomo is governor. Paterson has walked back his call for a November 15 special session and both Assembly Member Jonathan Bing and the office of Senator Liz Krueger said that at this point, they don’t expect to be called back into session before the new year.
Even so, that $315 million deficit has to be dealt with in the next five months, and that means the threat of more raids under this administration or the next. Said Russianoff, “The handwriting’s on the wall.”