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Posts from the "Bestocracy" Category

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Good Gov Groups, Transit Advocates Call on Cuomo to Stop MTA Raids

Albany’s repeated plundering of the MTA’s dedicated funds has robbed transit riders of more than $140 million in the past year alone. With a $9 billion budget gap looming, straphangers could end up paying again very soon. An impossible fix, you ask? I know the subject is Albany and we’ve all been conditioned to think that change is hopeless, but as it happens, all it takes is one person, the governor of New York, to say enough is enough.

For as long as he’s in office, Andrew Cuomo can put a stop to the practice of raiding dedicated transit funds, without waiting for the state legislature to take action. Not only would this policy change be good for transit riders, advocates say in a new report, it would be consistent with principles of good government.

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Get the full report as a PDF

The report, released today by the non-profit Reinvent Albany, lays out 11 model executive orders that Cuomo can institute immediately to improve state government’s transparency, ethical standards, and spending practices. The orders are endorsed by a coalition of good government groups, transit advocates, and policy experts. Reinvent Albany is directed by former Streetsblog contributor John Kaehny, and Streetsblog publisher Mark Gorton is a principal funder.

“These orders are tailor made for Governor Cuomo to use to launch his campaign to transform New York government,” said Kaehny. “Governor Cuomo will have enormous unilateral power to make government more open and accountable. The ball is in his court to do that.”

So how can Cuomo preserve the integrity of transit funding and prevent NYC straphangers from footing the bill for the state’s budget problems?

From the report:

The governor orders his administration not to propose a budget, program bill or other legislation that would divert dedicated funds or revenue sources from their intended “sole purpose.” Since the governor originates the budget, and he can veto legislative budget additions, this has the effect of creating a “governor’s locked box” for dedicated funds. We created this model order because we believe that diverting dedicated funds is bad governance and violates the pledge to taxpayers that was made when the fund was created. Over the past three years, at least $1.8 billion has been diverted from dedicated funds, most without the knowledge or understanding of the public.

The Governor’s Locked Box has the backing of the Citizen’s Union, NYPIRG, the League of Women Voters, the New York State Council of Machinists, Transportation Alternatives, and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The locked box proposal lays responsibility for protecting transit riders squarely on Cuomo, who hinted last week that he’s comfortable with the budgetary shell games that erode dedicated funds. In response to the report, a spokesman for Cuomo told the Times, “The governor-elect will consider executive orders at the appropriate time. The governor-elect’s policy views in many of these areas are quite clear from the policy books published during the campaign.”

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If Texting-While-Driving Ban Fails, Blame Albany’s “Democracy of One”

silver.jpgSheldon Silver. Photo: Daily News.
Last week Streetsblog followed up on the stalled progress of a statewide texting-while-driving ban, a bill that appears to be going nowhere even though almost everyone on the Assembly transportation committee supports it, according to Brooklyn representative Felix Ortiz.

When we contacted Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's office, a spokesperson told us that it's up to the committee chair to move the bill forward. That would be Rochester Democrat David Gantt. But why should one person have such power when the overwhelming majority of his members disagree? And is Gantt really the guy making that call -- or is it Sheldon Silver?

To get a sense of the dynamics at work here, Streetsblog called Laura Seago, a researcher at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice and co-author of the aptly titled report on Albany dysfunction, "Still Broken" [PDF].

"I would be surprised if Sheldon Silver wasn't involved," Seago said of the texting ban. "This is something we see all the time, unfortunately, which is that the speaker controls everything that comes to the floor."

While Gantt makes a convenient target, and it's conceivable, in Seago's words, that he was "acting freelance" on this one, the fact remains that Silver could easily move the texting ban forward if he chose to do so.

In a legislature that functions democratically, the members of the transportation committee could also override the objections of their chair or the leader of their chamber. But that's not how things work in Albany.

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Assembly Transpo Chair LOLZ @ Txting-While-Driving Ban

texting_while_driving.jpgOne in four American motorists text and drive, despite the fact that distracted driving is implicated in 80 percent of all crashes. Photo: Switched.
When reports surfaced last week that Assembly Member David Gantt intends to block a statewide texting-while-driving ban (again), we were curious: What does the chairman of the transportation committee have against a common-sense measure to discourage dangerous driving habits? After placing a call to Gantt's office yesterday morning, we're still waiting to hear back. The Rochester representative is famously circumspect when it comes to explaining his decisions, so the lack of a timely reply came as no surprise. After all, he doesn't return calls to members of his own committee, either.

Buffalo Assembly Member Mark Schroeder called Gantt's office last Wednesday seeking clarification on the chairman's plans for the texting-while-driving ban. The bill needs Gantt's blessing to get on the transportation committee calendar, and Schroeder wanted to know the deal. Would Gantt allow the bill to come up for a vote? Like us, Schroeder is still waiting for an answer.

Bill sponsor Felix Ortiz, a Brooklyn Democrat who has pushed legislation to deter distracted driving for more than a decade, was able to get a few minutes of face time with Gantt last week. In classic foot-dragging style, the chairman told Ortiz that he would prefer to address distracted driving with a more "comprehensive" bill that penalizes all forms of inattentiveness behind the wheel. Seems reasonable enough, right? Well, not quite. As Ortiz told Streetsblog: "This is how things die here."

Gantt's gambit is a tried-and-true Albany maneuver, deployed to kill bills softly by offering an alternative that can be spun as an acceptable substitute. But how plausible is Gantt's alternative?

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We Can’t Go on Living Like This

We'll have more on the details of the MTA funding deal as they emerge. For now I'd like to focus on its most salient feature: The failure to impose new fees on car commuters, whose daily trips would slow to a standstill without a functional transit system.

Here's a taste of what New Yorkers can expect as a direct result. Neighborhoods will suffer from heavier traffic as more drivers opt to take free bridges. Bus riders will sit through slower rides and worse gridlock. Straphangers will absorb more of the cost of transit through higher fares. And the long-term health of the transit system will remain a big question mark.

We've emerged on the other side of the immediate crisis, but the big problems that led there in the first place are still staring us right in the face. To paraphrase Governor Paterson, responsibility has been shirked to live for another day.

I stole the title of this post from Mikhail Gorbachev, who saw the writing on the wall for the USSR in 1985. Like the Soviet empire in the 1980s, New York City's transportation system is groaning under the combined weight of skewed incentives and stale political leadership. Instead of bread lines, we have traffic jams and drivers cruising endlessly for parking spots. Like the special privileges handed out to Communist Party apparatchiks, we bestow our public servants with parking placards and toll perks. The Eastern Bloc had the Kremlin. We have Albany.

Which is where this analogy breaks down. No one in Soviet Russia ever voted for the Glasnost candidate. One day, the head of the Communist Party just decided that something had to change. Well, as we've witnessed over the last 12 agonizing months, a decision from on high won't get it done in New York, not as long as the Carl Krugers remain in Albany. You see where I'm headed. Like Aaron said back in March, reforming transportation policy is now, above all, an electoral project:

Sustainable transport advocates need to build political clout. Period. At this point, almost nothing else matters.

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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.

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The Day After

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Well, here we are again.

One year after State Assembly Democrats killed New York City’s attempt to fund mass transit and reduce traffic gridlock, sustainable transport advocates find themselves suffering yet another huge defeat in Albany.

Fixing Albany requires volunteers dragging themselves out to the Kings Highway Q train platform in the middle of Carl Kruger’s district and handing palm cards to commuters explaining that the impending fare hike is the direct result of their state senator’s fine work.

On Wednesday the MTA Board approved the “doomsday” scenario – massive fare hikes and sweeping service cuts for New York City’s eight million transit riders. The State Legislature easily could have avoided doomsday by approving Richard Ravitch’s financing plan or coming up with a viable alternative of its own. But a handful of New York City State Senators, Carl Kruger, Ruben Diaz Sr., Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate – call them the Fare Hike Four – couldn’t bear the thought of imposing new fees on New York City’s motorists. In working to protect the free driving privilege of New York City’s armada of horn-honking, exhaust-spewing, road-clogging single-passenger car commuters, the State Senate has brought the city’s transit system to the brink of financial ruin. If you ride a train or bus in New York City you're going to pay the price.

The irresponsibility, the destructiveness and sheer lack of seriousness displayed by the Fare Hike Four is without question and we could spend all day heaping scorn on them. But the Senate Democrats are hardly any worse than the minority Republicans who were perfectly happy to sit by and watch the train wreck. And we could just as well place the blame for our current mess on the State Assembly members who killed congestion pricing last year.

Rather than pointing fingers at our feckless state government, advocates for livable streets and mass transit need to take a good long look in the mirror. Despite assembling a broad and seemingly powerful coalition in support of our issues, our advocacy consistently goes nowhere in Albany. That needs to change. So, how?

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Kruger: MTA Funding Plan Will Be “So Outside the Box.”

kruger.jpgLiz Benjamin at Daily Politics and Jimmy Vielkind at Politicker have some updates on the MTA funding discussions in Albany.

When asked about the MTA situation today, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Carl Kruger told Liz that his opposition to tolls on the East and Harlem River bridges has not softened but a new plan is coming together that will be, "comprehensive and so outside the box that everybody should want to partner with it." 

OK, so, I've got a free, signed copy of Jeff Mapes' "Pedaling Revolution" for the Streetsblog commenter who correctly guesses Kruger and friends' plan for staving off MTA fare hikes.

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Silver Gives Gantt Two More Years Atop Transpo Committee

silver_gantt.jpgSheldon Silver and David Gantt
On Thursday, Sheldon Silver re-appointed Rochester's David Gantt to chair the Assembly Transportation Committee (Excel spreadsheet via Daily Politics). Gantt is the chairman who engineered the defeat of bus lane enforcement cameras last June, when six co-sponsors of the bill wound up voting against it in his committee. With the city's bus rapid transit plans relying on bus-mounted cameras to help keep BRT lanes free of auto traffic, the committee vote dealt a big setback to New York City bus riders.

Gantt is also responsible for holding back automated enforcement measures like red light cams and speeding cams, which would save lives and deter the reckless driving that prompted Silver to call for zero tolerance traffic enforcement a mere two weeks ago.

After the bus cam vote, the Times editorial page exhorted Silver to remove Gantt from the chairmanship, citing his years of "micromanaging New York City's traffic from afar and for bewildering reasons." Gantt's standard anti-enforcement rationale -- privacy concerns -- was even more perplexing given that the bus cam bill had garnered the blessing of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Nevertheless, Silver just re-upped for two more years of Gantt at the helm of the transportation committee.

We asked the speaker's office why Silver made that call. We're waiting for a response, but a spokesman said the speaker does not usually comment on committee appointments.

So what does an Assembly member have to do to lose a committee chairmanship (and the hefty salary perk that goes with it)? Get caught asking for $500,000 in kickbacks from undercover federal agents. After Queens Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio was nabbed soliciting cash in exchange for favors in Albany, Shelly declined to re-appoint him. Making life more difficult for New York City bus riders, unfortunately, doesn't rate.

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Albany’s Transit Sins Come Back to Bite America

bruno_silver_patterson_farrell.jpgHow many true transit advocates are in this picture?
Just how bad are the service cuts and layoffs that transit agencies across the country will soon be forced to enact? Severe enough to weaken the national economy, the New York Times reports -- all while Congress pieces together a stimulus plan that does nothing to address the problem:

The new federal money -- $12 billion was included in the version passed last week by the House, while the Senate originally proposed less -- is devoted to big capital projects, like buying train cars and buses and building or repairing tracks and stations. Money that some lawmakers had proposed to help transit systems pay operating costs, and avoid layoffs and service cuts, was not included in the latest version.

It's not too late for the President, who set a mid-February deadline to pass the legislation, to step in, writes Times columnist David Leonhardt:

The odds that, a year from now, Mr. Obama and Congress will regret not having been more aggressive seem bigger than the odds that they’ll think they overdid it. Why not redouble efforts to find a few other ways to spend money quickly? More than 50 mass transit agencies across the country are cutting services or raising fares, and the stimulus bill does nothing for them.

On the same day that the Times ran these stories, representative Carolyn Maloney held a press conference to tout the stimulative effects of mega-projects like the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access. Not a word about keeping the buses and subways running.

The pols at Maloney's presser might as well be taking a lead from the MTA itself. Last week, we wondered why the nation's largest transit agency, with its lobbying chops and $1.2 billion deficit, hasn't been more vocal about the desperate need for operating assistance from the feds. A spokesperson wrote back, saying the agency is now focused primarily on Albany after making its case to Washington:

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Brennan Center: Albany’s “Still Broken”

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NYU's Brennan Center for Justice just published an update of the famous 2004 report that described in excruciatingly precise detail just how deeply lousy New York State government has become. I haven't had the chance to read it yet but the title of the 2008 edition pretty much sums it up: "Still Broken."

The New York Times editorializes this morning:

New York’s government is still a secretive, boss-driven, anti-democratic disgrace.... Legislative leaders, especially Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, have had “a stranglehold on the flow of legislation at all stages of the legislative process.” Most members have little say. Committees are run like shadow puppet theaters. Details about legislation are hard for the public to get, unless they subscribe to a bill-drafting service for $2,250 a year.

After the jump, some bullet-pointed lowlights from the report...

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