Since 2009, Albany has stolen roughly $260 million dollars from dedicated transit funds in an attempt to plug the state government’s enormous deficits. Those cuts have wreaked havoc upon the MTA’s budget, precipitating major service cuts and fare hikes.
Now, however, some legislators are trying to help put an end to those raids. A new bill introduced by Assm. Jim Brennan and Sen. Marty Golden won’t be able to put a stop to the raids directly, but it has the potential to make a statement in support of protecting transit riders and educate their fellow legislators.
“Unfortunately, New York has a history of raiding the MTA’s funds,” said Brennan in a prepared statement. “This bill requires that funds raised by taxes for the express purpose of funding the MTA or its subsidiaries be used for their intended purpose. By retaining these funds for the system, we stabilize fares and protect funding for the system’s operation.”
The Brennan/Golden bill would make it slightly harder for the executive branch to raid transit funds. For two years following a fare increase, the bill would forbid the state Division of the Budget from including dedicated transit funds in the “blanket sweeps” it is currently allowed to perform. However, while blanket sweeps have raided hundreds of millions of dollars statewide from dedicated funds in recent years, according to a report from the state comptroller [PDF], only a small fraction of the sweeps have affected transit funding.
The sole transit funding taken using blanket sweeps since 2009 was $1.3 million in aid to the LIRR and Metro-North. The rest of the $260 million in transit raids were done through legislative action, and there’s no way short of a constitutional amendment to prevent transit raids from being included in future laws.
The Brennan/Golden bill, therefore, isn’t really an outright ban on raiding transit funds, according to Gene Russianoff of the the Straphangers Campaign. “I’m just not sure that we could do that legally,” he said. Instead, Russianoff is hoping that Brennan and Golden “use this as an organizing vehicle to make their colleagues aware of this problem of theft.” If the bill is passed, it could also make it politically costlier for the legislators who vote for it to later support additional transit raids.
The political benefits of the legislation would be even stronger if it included provisions to shine some sunlight on the raids, which Russianoff is hoping to include. “Right now, it’s a game of Clue uncovering this stuff,” he said. “It should be easier for the public and the media and affected riders to tell right out front if they’re the victims of theft.” Russianoff said he’s spoken with Brennan and the assembly member is open to adding disclosure requirements to the bill.