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Dean Skelos

Joke of the Day: Dean Skelos “Concerned” About MTA Debt

2:12 PM EDT on March 16, 2012

In a letter to MTA Chair Joe Lhota, State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos writes that he's withholding approval for $770 million in MTA capital funding and a hike in the agency's borrowing limit because "a staggering $42 billion bonding debt level is of great concern." (Hat tip to Dana Rubinstein at Capital New York.)

So Skelos says he's worried about MTA debt. This is rich, because Skelos is basically obstructing the MTA from addressing a situation that he, as much as anyone, helped create. Let's rewind a bit...

After Skelos was appointed to one of four slots on the MTA Capital Program Review Board in 1998, he approved hugely expensive MTA expansion projects, include the multi-billion dollar East Side Access, which mainly benefits Skelos's Nassau constituents by linking LIRR service directly to Grand Central.

Debt service to pay for the capital plans that Skelos approved now consumes a big chunk of the MTA budget. Skelos could have helped the agency secure new revenue to offset its mounting debt load, especially in 2009, when Republicans were in the minority in the State Senate. At the time, a handful of GOP votes could have put support for bridge tolls over the top, overcoming the four obstructionist Democrats who wouldn't join the rest of their party and back Richard Ravitch's MTA funding plan. Not a single Republican broke ranks, and bridge tolls failed.

Skelos also spent 2011 trying to undo the major transit funding breakthrough of the Ravitch Commission -- the MTA payroll mobility tax. He succeeded, reaching a deal with Governor Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to lop off $320 million a year from the payroll tax -- a big hit to dedicated transit funding. In the end, straphangers will almost certainly end up paying the price.

Now Skelos says he won't approve $770 million in state funds for the MTA capital program, and he won't sign off on a higher MTA bond cap to let the agency can pay for the projects that he approved. If Skelos was really concerned about MTA debt, he could hold out for a sustainable revenue stream, like congestion pricing or bridge tolls. But that's not what this fight is about.

In all likelihood Skelos and the Senate GOP are holding out for upstate road funding. Syracuse Republican John DeFrancisco said as much earlier this week. (Skelos also held out for road funding before approving the MTA capital programs in the aughts.) We won't know for sure until Albany leaders emerge from behind closed doors to announce their big budget deal -- probably while you're sleeping this weekend.

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