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Livable Streets Progress in Albany Will Have to Go Through a GOP Senate

Andrew Cuomo may have won re-election, but New York was no exception to the national Republican wave in yesterday’s elections. The GOP regained control of the State Senate, weakening its bond with the Independent Democratic Conference and keeping mainline Democrats in the minority. With last night’s results, the landscape for transit and livable streets legislation in Albany has shifted.

Dean Skelos, right, is back as the sole leader of the State Senate. What will it mean for the MTA? Photo: MTA/Flickr

Dean Skelos, right, could come back as the sole leader of the State Senate. What will it mean for transit in NYC? Photo: MTA/Flickr

Republicans now have 32 of 63 seats in the State Senate. They gained control by ousting three upstate Democrats and losing only one seat, in a tight three-way Buffalo-area race. The balance of power no longer rests with the breakaway IDC, which formed a power-sharing agreement with Republicans. Leadership of the Senate could be consolidated next session in Dean Skelos of Long Island, who currently splits control with IDC leader Jeff Klein.

With Republicans in the majority, NYC’s two GOP senators — Martin Golden of Brooklyn and Andrew Lanza of Staten Island, who both won re-election last night – will be key for any street safety legislation affecting the city. Golden initially resisted speed camera legislation earlier this year, though he ultimately voted for the bill. Lanza is best known to Streetsblog readers for refusing to allow flashing lights on Select Bus Service vehicles.

The rest of the statewide political landscape did not change much. The Assembly will remain in the hands of Democrats, led by Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver and Skelos will return to Albany next year with Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and Governor Cuomo, who all secured expected victories over Republican challengers.

The most pressing transportation issue facing Cuomo, Silver, and Skelos — the proverbial “three men in a room” — will be closing the $15.2 billion gap in the MTA capital program.

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With Victims’ Families in Albany, Senate Could Vote on 25 MPH Bill Soon

Members of Families for Safe Streets meet with Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell, the sponsor of 25 mph legislation in the Assembly. The Senate could vote on the bill tonight. Photo: Families for Safe Streets/Twitter

Members of Families for Safe Streets meet with Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, the sponsor of 25 mph legislation in the Assembly. The Senate could vote on the bill tonight. Photo: Families for Safe Streets/Twitter

Update: As of 8:30 p.m. Thursday, the Senate had not yet voted on the bill. The vote may come later tonight. Senators expect to be in session on Friday, according to Jimmy Vielkind of Capital New York.

10:50 p.m.: After securing a message of necessity to allow a vote before the required three-day waiting period from Governor Cuomo, the bill passes the Assembly, 106-13. The Senate is next.

12:35 a.m. Friday: The Senate votes for the bill, 58-2. It now goes to Governor Cuomo for his signature.

 

State Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein says a vote on his bill to lower New York City’s default speed limit to 25 mph could come within the next hour, according to Glenn Blain of the Daily News. Families of traffic violence victims in Albany urging lawmakers to vote for the bill tell Streetsblog they have been invited to the gallery to watch the vote.

If the measure passes the Senate, action shifts to an identical bill in the Assembly. Advocates say Governor Andrew Cuomo has committed to issuing an emergency message so the bill can receive a vote in the Assembly tonight, before its required three-day waiting period concludes after the end of the legislative session today. Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, sponsor of the bill, could not confirm this with Streetsblog. An inquiry with the governor’s office has not yet been returned.

Senate Co-Leader Dean Skelos indicated yesterday that he might not put the bill up for a vote because of a political spat with Mayor Bill de Blasio. This afternoon, families of traffic violence victims met with a top Skelos staffer. ”He was very non-committal but they were still negotiating at that point,” said Families for Safe Streets co-founder Amy Cohen. “It was earlier in the day and we now hear things look more promising.”

Cohen and six other Families for Safe Streets members, who have either lost loved ones or were themselves injured in traffic violence, traveled to Albany today with Transportation Alternatives staff to speak with legislators about the bill. In addition to the Skelos staffer, they have met with Senate supporters Martin Malave Dilan, Brad Hoylman, Tony Avella, Simcha Felder, and staff of Jeff Klein. They also met with Senator David Carlucci, an IDC member who did not commit to voting for the bill, as well as O’Donnell on the Assembly side.

“There’s a lot of consensus that’s been built around the bill, that the bill saves lives and that it needs to get done this session,” said Caroline Samponaro, TA senior director of campaigns and organizing. “We’re hearing good things.”

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Tell Marty Golden and Andrew Lanza the Lifesaving 25 MPH Bill Can’t Wait

Senators Marty Golden and Andrew Lanza need to hear from New Yorkers who want safer streets.

Senators Marty Golden and Andrew Lanza need to hear from New Yorkers who want safer streets. Photos: New York State Senate

If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to urge key Senate lawmakers to get behind the bill to lower New York City’s default speed limit from 30 to 25 miles per hour.

With just hours remaining in the current legislative session, it’s up to NYC’s two Senate Republicans, Marty Golden and Andrew Lanza, to convince Senate Co-Leader Dean Skelos to see this lifesaving bill passed. Neither Golden nor Lanza have responded to Streetsblog’s requests for comment, but Lanza told Capital New York today that his support for a lower NYC speed limit hinges on passage of a bill that would require stop signs near schools and increase fines for traffic violations in school zones.

While Lanza is horse-trading, Skelos is playing party politics. Senator Jeff Klein, who heads the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference and shares power with Skelos, says he expects the speed limit bill to pass, but Skelos has declined to say if he will bring it to the floor for a vote. Skelos indicated yesterday that Mayor de Blasio’s efforts to secure Democratic control of the State Senate will factor into his decision.

Depending on what emerges from the Senate, the Assembly is likely to act on one of two bills: a duplicate of Klein’s Senate bill, or a different 25 mph bill sponsored by Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell. Each has the backing of Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Lanza and Golden need to hear from New Yorkers who want a lower, safer speed limit in NYC. When asked if she had a message for senators today about the 25 mph bill, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg focused on the public safety benefits. “For every five miles that you slow down the speed of a car, you have some pretty dramatic effects on what happens when you have a collision,” Trottenberg said. “Even a car going five miles slower — the driver has more reaction time, the impact is that much lighter, and you get a 10 to 20 percent reduction in fatalities. So it’s pretty important.”

Here is contact info for NYC’s Republican senators at their Albany offices:

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Avella, Savino Back 25 MPH Bill — Now NYC Republicans Must Convince Skelos

Three men in a room: Can Marty Golden, left, and Andrew Lanza, center, convince Dean Skelos not to hold life-saving speed limits hostage? Photos: NY Senate

Do Marty Golden, left, and Andrew Lanza, center, want Skelos to hold a vote on the 25 mph bill? Photos: NY Senate

State Senator Tony Avella, who opposed an earlier bill to lower New York City’s default speed limit to 20 mph, says he will vote for Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein’s bill to set the limit at 25 mph. He’ll be joined by fellow IDC member Diane Savino, who will sign on as a co-sponsor. So it’s up to New York City’s two Republican state senators to convince Senate Co-Leader Dean Skelos to bring the bill up for a vote tomorrow, the final day of the legislative session.

Skelos has been noncommittal. “I don’t know if it will be on the floor. It is certainly one of the things we will be discussing,” he said earlier today, according to the Daily News. “I know how important it is to Mayor de Blasio and he’s certainly one of my best friends.”

The “best friends” comment from Skelos refers to de Blasio’s efforts to secure Democratic control of the State Senate, a goal that Governor Cuomo endorsed last month as part of a deal to earn the backing of the Working Families Party.

It’s up to New York City’s two Senate Republicans, Marty Golden and Andrew Lanza, to convince Skelos that this lifesaving bill should rise above party politics. Neither have responded to Streetsblog’s requests for comment.

Klein is confident the bill will pass tomorrow. “This bill is a top priority of mine and I expect it to pass by the end of session,” Klein said in a statement to the Daily News.

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

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.)

Dean Skelos celebrates the elimination of $320 million in dedicated transit funding with Governor Andrew Cuomo last year. Will New Yorkers see a repeat of this scene after Albany hashes out a budget deal this weekend? Photo: Governor's office

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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Cuomo Deal Will Cut Payroll Tax, Reimburse MTA, Create Infrastructure Fund

The details of Governor Cuomo’s economic plan, which includes both tax reform and a new infrastructure fund, were released today with support from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

One of the MTA’s most important revenue streams is seriously affected by the tax reforms. The payroll mobility tax will be cut by $250 million under the deal, though the MTA will be reimbursed for its losses.

The payroll tax, which generates around $1.5 billion in revenue for transit every year, has been a top target of Senate Republicans from the minute it was proposed in 2009. Under the deal, small businesses — likely those with annual payrolls less than $1.75 million, based on previous reports — will have their MTA tax reduced. The current payroll tax exemption for public schools will also be extended to private and parochial schools.

According to the Daily Politics blog, the reductions were one price of Senate Republican support for the tax package. It does not appear, based on press reports, that previously-discussed plans to reduce the payroll tax in suburban counties made it into the package.

According to the Straphangers Campaign’s Gene Russianoff, that $250 million cut may not affect the MTA at all. For public schools, the exemption currently works like this: They first pay the payroll tax and then file for a refund from the state’s general fund. The MTA gets the money up front despite the exemption. If the proposed reimbursements work like this, transit service will likely remain unharmed by the changes.

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Albany Lacks Leadership on Transit as Time Runs Out on MTA Capital Funding

Andrew Cuomo's staff hasn't spoken to MTA executives about the authority's looming capital funding shortfall, according to MTA chair Jay Walder. Photo: Wikimedia

The MTA is still staring down a $10 billion hole in its capital plan, and the consequences of that deficit continue to roll closer. Unless money is found by the end of the year, transit expansions like the Second Avenue Subway will slow down and important maintenance will be left undone. But despite the approaching deadline, no one in Albany seems willing to step up and even begin to tackle the issue.

Governor Cuomo hasn’t shown much interest in dealing with the MTA’s capital deficit. During a legislative hearing on the transportation budget yesterday, MTA Chairman Jay Walder revealed that while he has met with the governor’s staff, “I have not had conversations as to avenues of funding for the capital program.”

Any new revenue source for the MTA would be a major political fight. If the governor’s office hasn’t even started speaking with the MTA about the issue, movement in the near future seems unlikely.

While the governor seems to be whistling past the graveyard, the State Senate continues to actively fight to take money away from transit. The $1.4 billion payroll mobility tax remains under threat, with Majority Leader Dean Skelos strenuously opposed, a number of Senate Republicans elected on anti-payroll tax platforms and the four breakaway Senate Democrats willing to axe the tax as well.

In a speech at a Crain’s Breakfast Forum two weeks ago, Skelos once again expressed his desire to eliminate the payroll tax, though he now says that the MTA should be “made whole” if that revenue is removed. That’s progress for Skelos, but it’s not enough. Whatever revenue would be used to replace $1.4 billion from the payroll tax is revenue that can’t be used to fund the capital plan. As Walder told the legislature yesterday, “I don’t foresee a plan in any time frame in which you can phase out the payroll tax.”

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Splinter Group of Senate Dems Want MTA Payroll Tax on Chopping Block

The Independent Democratic Conference, shown here, has included reform and possible repeal of the MTA payroll tax in its agenda. Photo: New York State Senate.

The Independent Democratic Conference, shown here, has included possible repeal of the MTA payroll tax in its agenda. Photo: New York State Senate

The fate of the payroll mobility tax, which brings in $1.34 billion a year to the MTA, just grew a little shakier. The four members of the State Senate’s new Independent Democratic Conference, who split off from the minority Democrats last week, have come out with their agenda and included in it is a call to “reform” the tax and even consider eliminating it. Any cut to the mobility tax would spell disaster for transit riders.

When the payroll tax originally passed in 2009, the vote was along strict party lines. Every Democrat voted for it and every Republican against. With the Republicans now in control of the Senate — led by the fiercely anti-payroll tax Dean Skelos — the mobility tax’s future in that chamber already seemed uncertain. But the possible support of the independent Dems could provide a repeal effort with bipartisan cover and some real momentum.

Here’s what the four members wrote in their platform:

MTA Tax Reform: Gross mismanagement is blamed for 1/3 of the MTA’s current fiscal debt. Our goal is to conduct a comprehensive forensic audit of the MTA to find areas of waste and corruption and determine the need and the efficacy of the current MTA tax.

It’s the phrase “determine the need” that’s most threatening, with its suggestion that there may be no need at all. Remember, the transit agency’s capital program — which covers expansions and badly-needed repairs — is a staggering $10 billion short and the agency just went through a painful round of service cuts, fare hikes and layoffs to make its operations budget add up. Even a deal that exempts the suburbs from the payroll tax but not the city would cause some combination of more service cuts, higher fares, and deferred maintenance.

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Suburban State Senate Candidates Campaign Against MTA Payroll Tax

Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos' top priorities, via his website. The payroll mobility tax could be in real danger if his party retakes the State Senate.

Repealing the MTA payroll tax is one of the top priorities of Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos, who may be poised to regain control of his chamber. Image via his website.

With the MTA at least $9 billion short on funding for its five-year capital plan, New Yorkers who ride buses and subways should be counting on legislators to secure a new revenue stream for transit. But after tomorrow’s elections, the first transit fight in Albany may not be over new revenue at all. Repealing the payroll mobility tax, passed along strict party lines as part of the 2009 MTA funding package, is a top priority for many suburban State Senate candidates, especially Republicans.

Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos is a fierce opponent of the payroll tax and could gain control of his chamber if the GOP picks up just two additional seats. Gubernatorial favorite Andrew Cuomo hasn’t had anything good to say about the payroll tax either. That means over $1.1 billion a year in transit funding is potentially on the chopping block.

Perhaps the fiercest fight over the payroll tax is happening in southern Suffolk County, where incumbent Brian X. Foley is defending his seat against Republican Lee Zeldin. Zeldin has made the payroll tax perhaps the number one issue in the campaign, going so far as to call his opponent “Brian ‘MTA Tax’ Foley” in press releases on subjects unconnected to transit or tax policy.

Zeldin has called for eliminating the payroll tax. “Entities paying the tax have been forced to lay off employees, cut payroll and watch their profits shrink,” says Zeldin’s campaign website. “We must also reform the MTA’s pattern of wasteful spending and mismanagement instead of supporting bailouts like the Foley Payroll Tax.”

Foley, in contrast, is pushing a compromise where the payroll tax is reduced by one-third in Nassau and Westchester Counties and by two-thirds in the rest of the MTA service region [PDF]. “Mr. Foley doesn’t like the tax and is working to make it less burdensome to businesses,” his campaign manager told the Wall Street Journal. “It was either that or let them raise fares 35 or 40%, cut service dramatically.”

Foley’s grudging support for the payroll tax is mirrored by a number of incumbent Democratic senators, all of whom voted for the MTA rescue package. In Westchester County, Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer said on a radio show that she “didn’t support it nor do I know anyone who likes this tax.”

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With No Plan for Transit, the Next Fare Hike Is Just Around the Bend

If state legislators don't act to undo the outcome of today's MTA Board meeting, it would mark the second straight year that fares have gone up, which is already a departure from the norm. And it's going to get worse, say Gene Russianoff and the Straphangers Campaign:

Without new financial help from Albany soon, the MTA says its current bad finances may mean another fare hike in 2010.

That would make it three years in a row for fare increases -- March 2008, June 2009 and early 2010 -- the worst record in the MTA's 40-plus year history.

It demonstrates a trend of shifting the costs of operating transit from some beneficiaries of the subways and buses -- such as motorists and businesses -- onto riders.  For example, the riders' share of operating costs for the subways will go from 69% to an astonishing 84%, according to the MTA, if the just-approved fare increases are implemented.

Under the plan proposed by former MTA chairman Richard Ravitch, no new fare hike would occur before 2011.

Meanwhile, the excuses for inaction are pouring in. GOP State Senator Marty Golden, a Brooklyn rep who never broke ranks to support the Ravitch plan, sent around a press release blaming the state's top Democrats for "closing the doors completely to Republicans." Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos excused his party's monolithic opposition to the transit rescue effort in much the same way, and added that the MTA was asking for a "blank check" by seeking to fund its five-year capital program. As Liz Benjamin notes, that's exactly what the Fare Hike Four and Senate Dems have been saying.

It's a patently false claim. Any plan is subject to oversight and approval by the Capital Program Review Board. The leaders of the State Senate and the Assembly each appoint one voting member to the CPRB, as do the mayor and the governor. Any of the four voting members can veto the whole thing. Said Russianoff: "If they appropriated the money, they would still have power over how it's spent."