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Jim Brennan

With One Month Left In Session, Advocates Push For Transit Funding Lockbox

3:36 PM EDT on May 19, 2011

Momentum is growing in the push to protect dedicated MTA funds from Albany's predations, but with only one month left in the legislative session, time is ticking. Assembly Member Jim Brennan and Senator Marty Golden, the bipartisan sponsors of the transit funding lockbox bill, stood today with a broad coalition of transit advocates in the Times Square subway station to make a final push for their legislation.

Since 2009, Albany has stolen $260 million in dedicated funds from the MTA in order to patch up the state's budget. The theft of those funds worsened an already bad fiscal situation for the transit authority, leading to devastating service cuts and fare hikes.

In order to keep Albany from continuing to use public transit as its piggy bank, Brennan and Golden introduced legislation that would make it more difficult for the state to divert dedicated funds. First, it would forbid the governor from including dedicated transit funds in "blanket sweeps." In recent years, however, only $1.3 million of the $260 million stolen from transit were taken using this mechanism.

To completely prevent the legislative sweeps that have made up the rest of the raids on transit, it would be necessary to pass a constitutional amendment. Brennan and Golden's bill aims to raise the political cost of stealing from transit by introducing a set of disclosure requirements.

For the legislature to steal dedicated transit funds, they would be required to pass a "diversion impact statement" outlining how much was being raided from each mass transit fund, how much had been raided over the past five years, and an estimate of what those raids would cost in terms of service, maintenance and security. These important sunshine measures hadn't been included in an earlier draft of the legislation, but were a top priority for transit advocates and added later.

Both Brennan and Golden argued that the disclosure requirements would be very effective in dissuading their colleagues from raiding transit. "It highlights the issue," explained Brennan, with the disclosure requirements making transit raids stick out more in a budget that totals 135 billion dollars. "Legislators will get more involved earlier in the process."

Golden added that his Republican colleagues would hate to see taxes approved on false grounds, singling out the payroll mobility tax, which is much-loathed in the Senate Republican caucus. "When we find out that we didn't need that money, why did we take it in the first place?"

Both legislators cautioned that it will take a big push to get the lockbox bill through the legislature before the end of the session on June 21. "We have a fight ahead of us," said Brennan. While neither identified any sources of direct opposition, they said that the challenge will be to make protecting transit riders a top priority when hundreds of other bills are competing for time and attention. On the Assembly side, Brennan urged supporters to focus their energy on Ways and Means Committee chair Denny Farrell, whose committee has jurisdiction over the bill.

One group that will be lending its muscle to protect transit is the Transport Workers Union Local 100. Local 100 president John Samuelsen identified a lockbox as the most important legislation on the table for transit riders. It doesn't make sense to add new revenues through something like bridge tolls before securing existing ones, Samuelsen argued. "Without a lockbox in place, it's all a moot argument."

Samuelsen's comments are auspicious because, as both Brennan and Golden noted, separate from any transit raids, the MTA's capital budget faces a $10 billion deficit starting next year. If the capital program is left unfunded, transit riders will be forced to pay vastly higher fares or suffer 70s style disrepair. "We as a state do not contribute enough into our mass transit system," said Golden, who noted that finding the money to fully fund the MTA is "obviously a hard job."

Also standing in support of the lockbox bill were representatives of the New York Building Congress, Transportation Alternatives, the Straphangers Campaign, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Reinvent Albany.

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