Malcolm Smith Spins Transit Band-aid as Victory for “Reform”

Now that Governor Paterson has backtracked on his pledge to secure a long-term solution to New York's transit funding crisis, the push is on to spin the slapdash result as a responsible outcome, not a capitulation to Albany's lowest common denominator.

Courtesy of Liz Benjamin, here's Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith emerging from last night's closed-door session with the two Long Island legislators who will presumably give him the 32 votes needed to pass a bill:

I think it is a tribute to them, and a tribute to this Democratic conference. Reform is what everybody wanted. Everybody said that you should have a legislature where the rank-and-file members have a right to speak their mind, and have input -- and not only have input but get some results.

Never mind that all the negotiating for this deal took place behind closed doors. Or that the plan Smith's conference concocted does not reduce the MTA's dependence on debt financing. Or that the band of senators who derailed the viable plan drawn up by the Ravitch Commission are the same group who held the Democratic takeover of the Senate hostage last year, in return for more lucrative and powerful committee chairmanships.

Sure, rank-and-file legislators need a more open, transparent process in Albany, but letting the Fare Hike Four dictate the agenda hardly qualifies as reform, or sound policymaking.

Fortunately, the city's editorial boards aren't buying it. The Times, the Daily News, and the Post unanimously slammed the framework that Smith, Paterson, and, one assumes, Sheldon Silver will now sign off on, because it doesn't fund the MTA capital plan -- the vital maintenance and improvements necessary to the transit system's long-term health.

Under the Ravitch framework, the payroll tax would have funded those long-term investments, and car commuters would have helped to plug the MTA's operating deficit through bridge tolls. The Smith/Paterson framework uses the payroll tax to plug the deficit, asks nothing of car commuters (who benefit enormously from a robust transit network), and leaves the capital plan unfunded.

Our transit system risks collapse, in other words, because Albany can't muster the will to charge drivers. That is the core storyline in the ongoing MTA funding saga -- not "reform" -- and it has to change.