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Posts from the "Albany Reform" Category

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State Budget Includes $625 Million Road Bailout for 2013

For years, Albany has raided the state’s highway trust fund, using general tax revenue to patch holes. This year, the governor’s budget, as filed in the Senate and Assembly, includes a mammoth $625 million road bailout, larger than the $519 million projected in the financial plan and higher than most trust fund bailouts in previous years.

As it siphons money from the state's highway trust fund, Albany continues to use the general fund to subsidize roads. Photo: Doug Kerr/Flickr

The Dedicated Highway and Bridge Trust Fund, created in 1991 using fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, is meant to pay for road construction and repair. By 1993, it was already being used to pay off Thruway Authority debt. Soon enough, it was raided to pay for road plowing and DMV salaries. Through 2008, only one third of the fund’s revenue was used to cover capital costs, according to Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

A bill to keep highway trust fund revenue from being diverted has stalled in the Assembly. Even that bill, however, wouldn’t solve the underlying problem: New York is spending more on roads than it collects in fuel taxes, tolls, and fees. (All told, federal and state gas taxes and automobile fees pay for only 54 percent of New York’s state and local bridge and road spending, according to the non-profit Tax Foundation.)

“Raids from dedicated revenue streams and general fund transfers are not funding solutions,” said Veronica Vanterpool of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “They are last resort measures when new revenue sources are not being considered.”

In the meantime, the trust fund raids continue, pushing more of the burden for supporting highways from drivers to all taxpayers, including the 54 percent of New York City households that don’t even own a car.

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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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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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Why Is David Gantt Still Running the Assembly Transpo Committee?

gantt.jpegThe Times published a great reminder today about last month's bus camera vote in the Assembly Transportation Committee, which weakened the city's plans for Bus Rapid Transit. The editorial page wonders why David Gantt, who for years has obstructed life-saving, transit-enhancing traffic enforcement measures, is still in charge of the committee:

Mr. Gantt is a Democratic assemblyman from Rochester. That's the Rochester that is 333 miles from Times Square. He has long controlled the State Assembly's Transportation Committee with an iron fist, micromanaging New York City’s traffic from afar and for bewildering reasons. At one point this year, when journalists asked him why he was blocking a particular city traffic bill, he said: “That's for me to know and you to find out.” So much for transparency in Albany.

It makes no sense for one upstate legislator to strangle progress -- and safety -- in New York City. This should be a matter decided by New York's mayor and City Council. Since it is not, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his Democratic majority should replace committee chairmen like Mr. Gantt who have clearly been there too long. If he won't, the voters should.

That raises a good question. Letting Gantt ride roughshod over New York City's interests probably isn't winning over Silver's constituents in the 64th District, or anyone else in the five boroughs. Why is the Speaker allowing the safety of his city's streets and the efficiency of its buses to be compromised by a Rochester legislator any longer?

If that's a question that puzzles you too, here's a group you may want to join.

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Auto Dealers, Parking Garages and, Well, Lots of Others Fund Shelly

In case you missed it last week, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is raising bucket-loads of campaign cash -- lots more than his two opponents, Paul Newell and Luke Henry. Groups that opposed congestion pricing are, no surprise, among some of the most enthusiastic contributors. The Times reported:

Like Mr. Paterson and Mr. Skelos, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver now Albany's longest-serving leader drew heavily from established interest groups, including trial lawyers, the insurance industry, banking interests and an array of labor unions. Mr. Silver also received money from some groups that opposed Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's plan to charge a fee for cars entering parts of Manhattan, including limousine services and rental car companies. Though Mr. Silver said he personally supported the idea, he did not allow it to come up for a vote in the Assembly.

You can add to that partial list car dealers, service stations, parking garages, and private bus companies, which opposed the idea of pricing until an exception was brokered for them late in the game. All told, Silver collected $308,044 from contributors in the latest six-month fundraising period, outpacing challengers Newell and Henry by a (predictably) wide margin.

Here's a rundown of major donations to his campaign from groups who sided against pricing or influenced the proposed legislation.

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How David Gantt Sent Bus Cameras to Defeat in Albany

gantt.jpeg With last week's bus camera vote in Albany inspiring calls for Mayor Bloomberg to engage in civil disobedience, Streetsblog has been taking a closer look at how Assembly transportation committee chairman David Gantt was able to bring down a bill that reportedly enjoyed majority support among his members and won approval in the New York City Council by a 40 to 7 vote.

Recall that the bill, critical to the success of the city's Bus Rapid Transit plans, was scheduled by Gantt for a motion to hold, meaning that a "Yes" vote would table the bill. In the official roll call, six co-sponsors of the bill were recorded as having voted "Yes," essentially killing legislation they had earlier endorsed. This drew the attention of the Times, which questioned whether Gantt had influenced the votes of committee members.

While Gantt told the Times he doesn't go around "breaking people's arms," multiple sources familiar with the vote told Streetsblog that some co-sponsors sided against bus cameras in order to preserve their relationship with the chair.

The rest of the story indicates why a committee member would want to stay in good standing with Gantt.

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Skelos Ascension Clouds Prospect of Pricing Revival

skelos.jpgYesterday, retiring New York State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno handed the reins to Deputy Leader Dean Skelos, Republican from Nassau County. Though some see this unforeseen development as an opportunity to move on much-needed reforms in Albany, it's not great news for advocates of congestion pricing.

If Governor Paterson looks to revive pricing via the Ravitch Commission, as is being reported today, he could very well lose the support of the Senate under Skelos, who, unlike Bruno, is an avowed opponent of the concept.

Skelos voted against the formation of the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission in 2007, though Bruno supported the move, which was widely seen as a concession to lawmakers who were skeptical of the city's original proposal. (Even ardent pricing foe Assemblyman Richard Brodsky voted to go ahead with the commission.) As late as April of this year, Skelos had this to say at a "virtual town hall" meeting:

I am ... opposed to congestion pricing and have already voted against it once in the State Senate. It's another form of a commuter tax and will place an unfair burden on middle-class Long Islanders who are already struggling to make ends meet.

Ironically, pricing's chances in the Senate could improve if Democrats assume the majority in the fall. Though he didn't make much noise about it, Minority Leader Malcolm Smith reportedly favored the plan.

The Assembly, of course, is another matter entirely.

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Shining a Light on Albany’s Bus Camera Vote

bus_lane.jpgA source sends along this roll call of the State Assembly transportation committee's vote on bus-mounted enforcement cameras. The names come from the official record; whether the record accurately reflects who raised a hand and who didn't is not certain, for reasons explained below. Note that the vote was on whether to table the bill, so "Yes" actually means "No" to better bus lane enforcement. You can match names to districts here.

YES: (14)
Gantt, Lafayette, Weisenberg, Hoyt, Perry, DelMonte, Latimer, Lupardo, Alessi, Gabryszak, Hyer-Spencer, Titone, Schimel, Spano.

NO: (11)
Cusick, Millman, R. Diaz, Maisel, McDonough, Thiele, Bacalles, Errigo, Reilich, Giglio, Tobacco.

Among the "Yes" column, Lafayette, Perry, Hyer-Spencer, and Titone represent districts in the five boroughs.

Multiple sources told Streetsblog that the vote was held soon after committee chair David Gantt called the meeting, at around two in the afternoon. They described a rushed scene in which advocates and legislators were scrambling to make it to the room where the meeting was held. The location of committee meetings is not known, even to legislators, until the chair announces it.

Not everyone on the committee made it in time for the vote. According to parliamentary rules, the votes of absent members are automatically counted as "Yes" votes. There is some time between the committee vote -- in this case, a show of hands -- and the official recording of the roll call. During this gap, one source told us, legislators can change how their vote is recorded, but the tally of the committee vote cannot be altered.

That clears things up, right?

Readers emailing their Assembly reps to voice displeasure with Albany's opacity might consider copying their messages to Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Photo: julieleone/Flickr

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State Sen. Martin Connor Secretly “Supported” Pricing All Along

With state primary campaigns ramping up, Observer political reporter Azi Paybarah seems to be everywhere with his video camera. In this clip from a debate held by Democracy for New York City, he captures State Senator Martin Connor, who represents lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, in an unprompted admission of legislative cowardice.

While fielding a question about protecting marine life, Connor launches into a defense of his environmental record. Slightly after the four-minute mark, he serves up this gem: "Congestion pricing -- I supported it. I didn't tell anybody; I didn't take a position on it. I supported it." Ah, so that's how lawmakers "support" bills tailor-made to benefit the vast majority of their constituents -- by keeping their thoughts to themselves until it's too late to actually influence the course of events.

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Dick Gottfried Blames Bloomberg for Pricing Non-Vote

 
Care of the Politicker, here's 38-year incumbent Assembly Member Dick Gottfried explaining to the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club, whose endorsement he wants for his re-election bid, how democratic Shelly Silver's house is in comparison to the state Senate. All things considered, it's a jaw-dropping spiel.

Then, at about the three-minute mark, an audience member asks why congestion pricing didn't come to a vote. Though he has just said that every member is guaranteed that his or her sponsored bill will be "considered" by committee, Gottfried -- a professed congestion pricing supporter -- replies that there was no need for pricing to be voted upon, as it would have been "resoundingly trounced." He then pins the blame for pricing's failure on Mayor Bloomberg's "astonishingly abominable" job in selling Assembly members on the plan.

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