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How We Got Here & Where To Go: The Centuries Old Legislative Pay Debate in New York


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(photo: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)


New Yorkers have been upset by state legislators’ compensation for more than 200 years. At the 1821 constitutional convention, Ezekiel Bacon, a former member of the Assembly and of Congress, called the pay issue “…a hobby horse of ambitious demagogues and peddling politicians, that caused the great questions that affected the vital interest of the state too often to be overlooked.” The current debate is nothing new. We’ve never liked how much legislators are paid. We’ve never liked how the matter is decided.  

At first the decision was left to the Legislature and the Governor (who was then far less powerful than today). Public distress at the members’ generosity to themselves led to the specification of a $3 per diem rate ($56.28 in today’s money) in the state constitution by the convention of 1821. This made the pay alterable only by constitutional amendment, which required public ratification after passage in two successive legislative sessions or adoption by a following convention. The Governor, with no role in the amending process, was denied formal involvement. The people -- always skeptical, sometimes hostile -- were left with a decisive voice.

No constitutional convention held after 1821 during the period that legislative pay was still constitutionally specified -- in 1846, 1867, 1894, 1915, and 1938 -- succeeded in increasing it. Some delegates, like the publisher Horace Greeley in 1867, thought public service was sufficiently rewarded by a legislator’s “consciousness of honorable usefulness” and the “gratitude’ of other citizens. If provided at all, those who held this view believed, pay for legislators should be sufficient only to cover expenses. At later conventions most delegates, many of whom had been or were senators or Assembly members, voiced support for better compensation for legislators, but failed to act on the matter because of the  expense, or because of fear that public hostility to a pay increase would lead to overall defeat of their work at the polls. Indeed, the constitution proposed in 1915, the only one offered by a convention that included a pay increase for legislators, was rejected by the public at referendum.

In the hundred years between 1846 and the end of World War II, voters did approve two amendments offered by the Legislature providing for members’ pay increases. The first of these, passed in 1874 and supported by both Democratic Governor John T. Hoffman and Republican Governor John Adams Dix, increased legislators’ annual compensation to $1,500 ($33,030 in current dollars) from the maximum of $3 day for 100 days ($8,318 in current dollars) set by the 1846 convention. This was the first specification of legislative pay as an annual salary, not as a per diem for what was then still universally regarded as part-time work. In 1911 voters defeated an amendment calling for a salary increase to $2,500. This increase ($35,966 in current dollars) was finally passed in 1927 as part of a broad package of reforms championed by Democratic Governor Alfred E. Smith.

The provision of costs for travel was long an important element of the debate in New York over legislative compensation. The 1846 constitution provided for coverage of travel expenses to and from the regular annual legislative session. Based upon the time travel took, the assumption then was that payment for one round trip would suffice; once members got to Albany they would stay there for the session’s duration. As time passed, faster travel by boat and train made regular return to legislative districts possible. Members desirous of pursuing both political and private business sought to return home during legislative sessions, and constituents expected to see them there. But provision for payment for only one round trip was specifically retained in the 1894 constitution. At the 1915 convention, Democratic Governor Smith asserted that coverage of the cost of members’ professional travel to assure their return to Albany during the regular session, and thus the presence of required quorums to do business, was more important to the effective functioning of the legislator than was their increased pay. Coverage of the cost of one round trip a week was finally added by the 1938 constitutional convention.

There is an established practice in New York State of paying some legislators additionally for additional work. Because they specified a per diem rate with a limit of 100 days for which members could be paid, drafters of the 1846 constitution felt it necessary to assure members got pay for added days when they were required for special sessions. They also specified that the Assembly Speaker was to “receive an additional compensation equal to one-third of his per diem allowance as a member.” In 1857 Republican Governor King’s veto was overridden to allow legislative committee members to be paid for work between annual sessions. The 1894 constitution eliminated added pay for the Speaker, but did provide it for “Senators, when the Senate alone is convened in extraordinary session, or when serving as members of the Court for the Trial of Impeachments, and such members of the Assembly, not exceeding nine in number, as shall be appointed managers of an impeachment, shall receive an additional allowance of ten dollars a day.”

An amendment passed in 1964 further constitutionalized added pay for added work; that is, what has become known as the ”lulu” system. It provided “Any member, while serving as an officer of his or her house or in any other special capacity therein or directly connected therewith not hereinbefore in this section specified, may also be paid and receive, in addition, any allowance which may be fixed by law for the particular and additional services appertaining to or entailed by such office or special capacity.”

In the immediate post WWII period legislators debated whether to try to amend the constitution to seek a doubling of salary (from $2,500 to $5,000 per year) or to seek to reinstitute the practice of legislative control of members’ compensation by statute, of course with gubernatorial approval. Either approach required a constitutional amendment. They took the later course, and succeeded. There ensued eight legislative pay raises in the 50 years between 1948 and 1998, compared to two, as noted, in the previous century.

Five of these raises occurred in the 25 years between 1948 and 1973, during times that the GOP controlled both legislative houses and the governorship. In 1948, the annual salary doubled, to $5,000. It was increased to $7,500 in 1954; $10,000 in 1961; $15,000 in 1966; and $23,500 in 1973. When measured in 2017 dollars, 1973 pay reached $131,806 per year.

The period of divided partisan control of state government that began in 1974 and persisted almost continuously through 2018 saw the use of many of the techniques later evident in the 2018 debate over legislative salary: employment of commission recommendations to diminish political pressure; linkage to salary increases for statewide elected officials, judges and commissioners; gubernatorial support made conditional on legislative action on other policy matters, related and unrelated; and the use of the lame duck session to address the issue, to diminish political risk. Following the recommendation of a five-person commission appointed by the Governor and legislative leaders, a bill was approved in 1979 that increased legislative salaries to $32,960 to be spread out over five years, with concomitant raises for judges and agency heads. Another was passed in 1984 in a lame duck session; it raised legislative salaries to $43,000. Governor Mario Cuomo’s support in 1987 for a salary increase for legislators to $57,500 was linked to their passage of ethics legislation that he championed and they resisted. Governor George Pataki made his support for the last increase, to $79,500, conditional on passage of legislation creating charter schools in the state.

We then went 20 years without increasing legislative salaries, the longest such period since 1948. Until the increase now moving forward, though under legal challenge and rhetorical dispute, a state legislator’s salary bought less in 2018 than it did in 1961. Two centuries of debate about legislative pay in New York have consistently been driven by skepticism about or hostility toward legislators, their integrity and their motives. Earlier reformers sought ways to discourage (or sanction) part-time legislators’ inclination to lengthen sessions to collect more per diem pay. Less was better.

Modern reformers want their legislators to work full-time, without the distractions and conflicts that arise from earning outside income. More is better. Early reformers searched for ways to encourage (or require) legislators to actually show up for sessions so that the necessary quorums could be assembled,  rather than “...play at ten pins, or sit at their hotels, or take rides to Saratoga.” Modern reformers also have their “performance standards,” e.g. timely budget passage. Yet is this really what the conversation about legislative pay should be about?

Two similar observations made almost a century-and-a-half apart are convincing in suggesting that the answer is “No.” In a debate at the 1821 constitutional convention, Robert Clarke, a former Assemblymember and delegate to the 1821 constitutional convention, argued that the goal should be to  make legislators’ pay “not so large as to be an object of cupidity, or so low as to prevent men in the middling paths of life from attending without great sacrifice to private interest…making the job only interesting to…nabobs and those having no honest employment.”

In 1984, Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink, a foremost legislative leader of the 20th century, said: ”If you want to continue [increasing] the quality and caliber of legislators on both sides of the aisle and don’t want a legislature composed by independently wealthy people or people who couldn’t hack it somewhere else you have to keep pace.”

Yet so long as the pay decision is in the self-interested hands of the Legislature itself, citizens will never believe that to attract people of competence and integrity to public service is the primary motive in setting legislative pay.

The state Legislature often lives quite comfortably with self-interested behavior: witness its devotion to gerrymandering in drawing its own district lines. But in 2018 enlightened self-interest prevailed on the pay issue, and the Legislature tried to do the right thing: it gave the decision -- not just the power to recommend -- to an independent commission, subject to a “legislative veto.” The pay increase the commission adopted is reasonable, even modest; it fairly makes up for the real erosion in legislative pay experienced in recent years. But the commission went beyond its brief; legislators didn’t ask for and don’t like the conditions it linked to the recommended raises, though there have commonly been conditions linked to raises for much of the state’s history.

And there is a bigger problem: this process is unconstitutional. The state constitution says that “Each member of the legislature shall receive for his or her services a like annual salary, to be fixed by law.” Clearly, the Legislature must set the pay itself; it cannot delegate the decision.

The lesson: right church, wrong pew. On legislative pay, as on redistricting and ethics, on all matters in which legislators are inextricably self-interested, we need a constitutional amendment to create separate, truly independent, constitutionally-rooted bodies to make the decisions. This will move us toward competence and integrity in our elected institutions and help restore citizen trust in government.

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Gerald Benjamin is director of The Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

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New York’s Private Sanitation Workers Deserve Fairness


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(photo: Spencer T Tucker)


Each January, we have the opportunity to take a day and celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Every passing commemoration to the life and legacy of Dr. King is a reminder to rededicate ourselves to advancing social and economic justice in New York and across the country. This year, as New York’s commercial waste industry is facing potential overhaul, it is particularly fitting to reflect on Dr. King’s often overlooked work helping sanitation workers in their fight for fair wages and higher safety standards.

If implemented, the New York City Department of Sanitation’s waste zones plan could leave a significant number of sanitation workers – the vast majority of whom are people of color – jobless. The livelihood of workers should not be used as collateral to score political points, which is why the NAACP New York State Conference supports reform to the city’s private waste industry that would vastly increase oversight and efficiency, without costing anyone their job.

Commercial waste is one of the few industries in our city that gives formerly incarcerated men and women a second chance to hold down a steady job with good wages, provide for their families and, most importantly, regain their sense of dignity. In a sense, the private waste industry has been able to service the formerly incarcerated as the second chance worker program New York doesn’t really have. However, DSNY’s waste zone plan stands to overhaul the industry while possibly causing significant job loss, which we know would disproportionately harm formerly incarcerated workers of color.

That is why we continue to stand firmly opposed to DSNY’s proposal to create commercial waste zones, and it is why we strongly support new legislation by City Council Member Robert Cornegy, Jr., known as Intro. 996, which would bring much-needed reform to the commercial waste industry without implementing a zone-based system. Job loss, especially among our most vulnerable populations, should not be taken lightly.

Intro. 996 will increase worker safety and hold bad actors accountable, without causing hundreds of workers to lose their jobs. On the other hand, DSNY’s proposal permits only a small number of companies to operate in each zone. Many private waste companies – particularly the smaller mom-and-pop ones – will be forced to consolidate or go out of business, leaving hundreds of workers without a job.

Council Member Cornegy’s legislation would give the city’s Business Integrity Commission the authority to establish safety standards for industry employees and private waste carters. Under Intro. 996, BIC would have far more power to guarantee companies are properly training their employees and hold bad actors to account.

Additionally, the legislation would, for the first time, require industry-wide reporting on demographics data for workers across the commercial waste industry. This will allow the city to have a better sense of who is working in the industry—including second-chance workers of color—to ensure that their progress is tracked and they are effectively protected under any new rules and regulations.

The vast majority of the private waste industry’s formerly incarcerated workers were already failed once by misguided policy – and we can’t let them down again with the administration’s waste zones plan.

The NAACP New York State Conference hopes other members of the City Council join us in supporting Council Member Cornegy’s fair and equitable proposal to reform the private waste industry.

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Dr. Hazel N. Dukes is president of the NAACP New York State Conference.

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Note: this column has been updated to clarify language about potential job losses as a result of the city's plan; it is unclear what job impact the plan will have.

New York City Is Still a Union Town and That’s a Great Thing for Our Future


count me in bldg trades


New York City - a beacon of the labor movement - has a duty to stand up for construction unions and serve as a model for rest of country

The labor movement is under attack. Over the past few years, assaults on unions and labor have escalated at a breakneck pace. From recent court cases like Janus v. AFSCME to right to work legislation creeping through state legislatures, one thing is clear: unions remain strong, but our resolve is being tested by increasingly relentless attacks from moneyed interests and a hostile political environment where the value of profit is placed over the value of working people.

We all know what happens when union and labor power are diminished -– a race to the bottom follows where working people lose out and a handful of wealthy individuals reap the rewards of everyone else’s hard work. That is not to say the pursuit of wealth should be discouraged – healthy entrepreneurship, innovation, and risk power the economic engine of New York, and those who drive their industry forward should be rewarded; however, the engine works best when all its pieces are working fairly and in concert.

There’s a reason New York is the most union dense state in the country, and that is because, as New Yorkers, we don’t settle for less, we champion the best. Unions are the backbone of this state and from the recent fight to codify construction safety to #CountMeIn, our movements have been at the forefront of pushing the country forward in the fight to build a solid middle-class for all.

Now, more than ever, New York City finds itself at a pivotal moment in labor history. With growing wealth inequality and in the face of a commercial and residential construction boom, will developers and power players stand up for our middle-class or will they settle for the lowest denominator, like open shop, in the name of cost-cutting?

As Governor Andrew Cuomo has mentioned, New York will continue moving forward by building new bridges, new airports, and other new infrastructure. This means jobs - lots and lots of middle-class jobs. Middle-class jobs aren’t created out of thin air -- they require cooperation between job creators and job seekers and the understanding that if an employee works hard and does their part they should be able to support a family without worrying about whether their next paycheck will be enough to scrape by or whether they will make it home safely.

Lawmakers need to spearhead legislation to ensure that residents are being paid higher wages, provided with adequate health benefits, and are placed in an environment with good working conditions -- tenets of union work. These are not revolutionary ideas, but axioms of New York’s history -- a history that some would like to see erased.

With a wave of development underway ranging from Hudson Yards, to Amazon HQ2, to residential booms in Brooklyn and the Bronx, local and state officials and developers must work together to protect unions, particularly as it relates to construction.

This means no open shop for Hudson Yards. This means work environments with high standards. Taxpayers are already footing the bill for massive projects like Hudson Yards, they expect something in return. How about some middle-class jobs? There should be no blank checks in the greatest city in the world. Open shop is broken shop and New Yorkers deserve better.

They know they deserve better and that’s why, over the past year, we’ve seen the enormous grassroots success of the #CountMeIn movement, which has brought together New Yorkers of different races, religions, and backgrounds united in a fight for their fair share. While much has been made of reports of a supposed decline of construction unions in New York City, such analyses do not take into consideration total market share. For example, growing claims of the rise of open shop do not paint the whole picture because they exclude commercial or institutional markets. When the dollar amount is analyzed, union construction accounts for 70 percent of New York City’s total construction -- a much higher proportion than non-union construction. The #CountMeIn movement is evidence that the revival of the labor movement starts here and it begins with construction unions.

Now is the time for lawmakers and developers to cultivate this grassroots energy and do what is right: listen to the voices of New York and reject open shop, promote worker-friendly legislation and show that yes, we can continue to build the greatest city in the world, and we can do it while creating middle-class jobs and preserving the economic future for the next generation.

New York’s metric for success is not just about jobs or numbers on a spreadsheet, it’s about dignity and quality of life for our workers. At this moment in history, this is a battle worth fighting, and if it is won, it will serve as a model for the rest of the country.

Let’s prove that New York cares about fairness and a strong middle class. The future of unions and the labor movement depends on it.

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Gary LaBarbera is President of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. On Twitter @NYCBldgTrades.

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Community Demands for the Next Queens District Attorney


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Queens DA Brown and several ADAs (photo: @QueensDABrown)


Thankfully, “progressive prosecutor” is the new “tough-on-crime” prosecutor, and the trend has been on the rise ever since hardliner Anita Alvarez lost her re-election campaign for Cook County District Attorney in 2016 and progressive crusader Larry Krasner won his campaign for Philadelphia D.A. in 2017. Over the last two years, district attorney elections from Houston to Boston have promised substantial criminal justice reform, and many across the United States are looking to the 2019 Queens District Attorney race as the next forum for change.

But we know from experience that election rhetoric doesn’t always equal reform. Let’s take a look closer to home. Brooklyn D.A. Eric Gonzalez succeeded the late Ken Thompson in 2017, promising “the most progressive D.A.’s office in the country” as he sought election to a full term. In forums leading up to the election, candidates fought over who was the most progressive, with Gonzalez promising to end cash bail and stop prosecuting fare evasion if elected. And yet, according to Court Watch NYC reports, D.A. Gonzalez requests cash bail every day and continues to prosecute fare evasion. Despite these broken promises, D.A. Gonzalez is celebrated in the media as an example of a good and progressive D.A.

Progressive talk is cheap. Real change is not.

In our borough, the 2019 Queens District Attorney race is shaping up to be an essential test. Current D.A. Richard Brown is a true standby of a bygone era. He charges people with no regard for devastating immigration consequences. He prosecutes people like Terrell Gills, who he knows to be innocent. He forces people to waive their speedy trial rights, requests absurdly high bail, and coerces plea deals. He advocates for Rikers Island to remain open. He fails to hold the NYPD accountable for perjury or brutality. He champions broken-windows policing by prosecuting marijuana possession, fare evasion, and other low-level offenses.

Queens deserves better. It is the fourth largest county, with 2.4 million people, and home to the largest community of immigrants in the nation, making this an election of national importance. On the heels of U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s historic grassroots upset victory and after Richard Brown’s announcement that he won’t seek re-election, suddenly anything seems possible here. The field is wide open -- at least nine candidates have speculated a run, and they’re all promising reform. But who’s going to make sure the best candidate for the job wins and that those reforms actually happen after a winner is declared and gains power?

That’s why grassroots groups came together to form “Queens for DA Accountability,” a coalition of 19 (and growing) community organizations dedicated to ending mass incarceration in Queens. We are led by people of color, immigrants, and formerly incarcerated Queens residents. This Martin Luther King Jr. Day at 1 p.m., we’ll officially launch at the Queens Criminal Court, and for the next year, before and after the election, we’ll be doing the work in our borough -- teach-ins, protests, educating the public about the role of the district attorney and the importance of this race for us and our neighbors. We’ll be sitting in arraignment courts and reporting out what we see from D.A. Brown’s office and building power with communities impacted by the justice system. We’ll be making public art, launching social media campaigns, door-knocking, and holding town halls.

Though media will cover this race as if an election can end incarceration, we know better. Only by using any means necessary to hold the district attorney accountable to community demands will we truly liberate our communities.

These are our demands for the next Queens District Attorney:

1. We demand a public plan to cut the Queens population in jail by 50% in 5 years.

2. We demand zero tolerance for police misconduct in any form.

3. We demand an end to money bail and a start to open, early, automatic discovery.

4. We demand sentencing recommendations that are compassionate and individualized to each case.

5. We demand a list of charges the D.A. will decline to prosecute. This includes charges related to drug use, sex work, crimes of poverty, and other low-level offenses. The D.A. should not prosecute survivors of domestic, sexual, or gender-based violence for acts of self-defense.

6. We demand a D.A. who won’t try young people as adults.

7. We demand a D.A. who keeps ICE out of the courts. The DA should consider immigration consequences in charging decisions.

8. We demand full transparency. The D.A. should release data about outcomes of the office to the public and hold quarterly town halls.

The Queens District Attorney is an elected public servant. When the D.A. brings cases, the offices does so in the name of “the People of the State of New York.” We, the People, have a right to know what’s done in our name. We’re here to bring real community accountability to the office.

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Andrea Colon is a lifelong resident of Far Rockaway, Queens and Community Engagement Organizer at Rockaway Youth Task Force, representing RYTF on the Steering Committee of the Queens for DA Accountability coalition. Jon McFarlane is a lifelong resident of Jamaica, Queens and a volunteer for Court Watch NYC, which is a member organization of the Queens for DA Accountability coalition.

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The Government Shutdown and Trump’s War on the Safety Net


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City Council Member Stephen Levin, the author


We have now reached the longest government shutdown in history with no plans for reaching a deal anytime soon. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers’ jobs have been impacted and the shutdown has delayed mortgage applications, caused significant Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) staffing callouts, impacted basic healthcare access for Native Americans, and created waste pile-ups at national parks. Federal employees have even started looking for new jobs after being denied their paychecks last week with no sign of progress.

Worse still to come, the shutdown could put the nation’s safety net in peril. Forty-two million Americans rely on food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps); if the shutdown continues into February, we will see an increase in hunger nationwide as people lose benefits and are forced to turn to emergency assistance at food pantries.  Following pressure, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) committed to funding February SNAP benefits, however, if the shutdown continues, the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities estimates families could see their benefits cut by 40%. In New York City alone, almost 1.7 million residents depend on food stamps, and would be forced to worry if they’ll be able to provide enough food for their loved ones simply because of President Trump’s political game of chicken.

This government shutdown is callous and irresponsible; and we’ve already begun to see the impacts on nutrition benefits. According to Rewire News, over 2,500 grocery stores have stopped accepting SNAP because of paperwork filing issues caused by the federal government. States are also required to apply to issue February benefits by January 20, disrupting recipients’ normal monthly food aid schedule. One SNAP recipient in Brooklyn, Brenda Riley, with the Safety Net Activists said it best: "The president and other politicians who have created this shutdown should sacrifice their own salaries instead of hurting families who are already on soup lines."

Unfortunately, the president’s disregard for SNAP recipients is just the latest attack in a long line of attempts to dissolve the country’s safety net and harm low-income communities. Perhaps most concerning is the proposed executive order published late last month calling for new work restrictions on the SNAP program to cut off basic food assistance for hundreds of thousands of Americans. Under the current policy, single adults 18-through-49 are only granted SNAP benefits for three months out of every three years if they are not working more than 20 hours per week. However, longstanding bipartisan rules have allowed waivers to this restrictive policy, recognizing high rates of unemployment in communities and lack of job training access that make work requirements extremely burdensome. Trump’s proposed rule would significantly reduce allowances for job waivers, effectively cutting off the lowest income recipients who are unable to work more than 20 hours a week or who have a difficult time finding a job. This proposal undermines the very notion of a safety net, and unrealistically expects recipients to suddenly afford groceries, maintain stable housing and cover high health costs.

SNAP has been an incredibly successful program and made the difference for millions of families who don’t have to sacrifice groceries to be able to afford their monthly rent. In 2015, food assistance lifted 4.6 million Americans out of poverty, including 2 million children and 366,000 seniors. Adding burdensome work requirements would only make it harder for already struggling New Yorkers to cover basic expenses, and would further contribute to the city’s income divide.

It’s also bad economic policy. In 2017 alone, SNAP helped generate over $5 billion in economic impact in New York City, as every dollar spent through SNAP adds $1.79 to its local economy. The fact is, the vast majority of Americans who receive SNAP already work, and for those who don’t, it is largely due to a disability or circumstance that prevents them from working. These new restrictions reinforce harmful stereotypes in order to discourage participation and public investment in the program more broadly.

The onslaught of attacks on the SNAP program require that we fight back. New York City has long committed to investing in food assistance programs -- such as through passing legislation to increase awareness and enrollment among eligible residents and by making healthy, local food accessible to all SNAP recipients through the City’s GrowNYC’s Healthy Exchange Project. As a result of the Greenmarket partnership, over $1 million in SNAP benefits were redeemed at city farmers markets in 2016 alone. But federal restrictions are rolling back public assistance at a time when the need is increasing. Rent continues to rise and New Yorkers are facing stagnant wages and supermarket closures, making it difficult to afford nutritious food.

The government shutdown and recent cuts to SNAP are also impacting our city’s emergency food assistance program — providers have shared they are seeing increased traffic as people are supplementing their SNAP benefits with food pantries and soup kitchens. With recipients’ monthly SNAP benefits running out sooner, many are turning to food pantries to make ends meet, where monthly resources are depleted quicker and providers are struggling to keep up with the demand. If the shutdown continues much longer, New York City will need an emergency assistance contingency plan.

The president’s ongoing attack on food assistance is nothing short of draconian. I encourage New Yorkers to call on the administration and Republican leadership to join House Democrats’ efforts to reopen the government and protect New Yorkers’ access to food aid. And when the Food and Drug Administration’s public comment period on work requirements opens, I will be submitting comments in opposition to the proposed rule. Congress has long maintained bipartisan support of the food stamps program and should not let up now — the 42 million Americans who receive SNAP benefits are counting on us.

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Stephen Levin is a City Council Member from Brooklyn and chair of the Council’s General Welfare Committee. On Twitter @StephenLevin33.

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Lessons from 'Hell': What’s Cuomo Really Doing with the L Train?


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Cuomo tours the L tunnel (photo: The Governor's Office)


There’s far more to what Governor Andrew Cuomo is saying than what he says at a major announcement. And when an announcement concerns New York’s public transportation, you can bet it’s a calculated communications decision with serious long-term implications.

On Thursday, January 3, Governor Cuomo announced he was slamming the brakes on the L train shutdown. After consulting for three weeks with an independent panel of experts, his team insists repairing the Canarsie Tunnel connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan can be done with only night and weekend disruptions for 15 to 20 months, tossing aside the 15-month full closure three years in the making by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and scheduled to begin in April. It was a bold bet by New York’s most powerful politician, who has inconsistently taken responsibility for and interest in the transit authority that he has de facto control over.

Many commuters and real estate interests rejoiced, some transit advocates rang the alarm, and several transit officials masked frustration with bewilderment. For the public, there’s a fair bit of confusion to clear up -- it’s hard to make sense of conflicting messages and a lack of comprehensive information. How are riders supposed to think about this new plan? Does the MTA have any idea what it is doing? Where was the governor all this time?

Ultimately, what can the public consider to be truthful?

While the governor insisted that he had now involved himself with the L train plan -- which would disrupt the lives of hundreds of thousands of commuters, business owners, and others -- because of the magnitude of the issue and the pleas of multiple constituents, many questions linger. Along with the aforementioned, one especially important one: What’s Cuomo really doing here? Cuomo has manipulated public opinion to execute transit repairs before, and it’s happening again during this L train saga. He’s again taking a calculated political risk.

Consider the governor’s role in 2017’s “Summer of Hell.” Originally, the “Summer of Hell” had nothing to do with a subway system in decline. The catchy name’s source was none other than Governor Cuomo. He created this crisis narrative at a May 23, 2017 announcement to brace LIRR commuters for six weeks of Amtrak’s necessary repair work at Penn Station. Yes, that was it. But it became much more.

Amtrak’s plans were already two years in motion and announced one month earlier. Yet, Cuomo parachuted in to blame Amtrak for Penn’s state of disrepair, tell Long Islanders to adjust their established commuting routines, and present new contingency plans (ferry, bus and ticket supplements). The weeks leading up to the “Summer of Hell” were terrifying for many Long Islanders who commute into Manhattan.

In the end, Cuomo’s exaggeration made the “Summer of Hell” anything but. The crisis narrative drove Long Islanders off the LIRR, the underused ferry and bus services were curbed in the first week of repairs, and trains ran better during a supposed “hell” than at any time in the past two years. Cuomo manufactured a crisis worth his addressing by lowering expectations, then being able to take credit for exceeding the low bar he set. However, the “Summer of Hell” phrase he applied to Penn quickly became used to capture the state of transit more broadly, and liberally wielded against the governor by electoral opponents and other critics.

Cuomo’s “Summer of Hell” announcement and L train un-shutdown announcement were strikingly similar in format, with the governor intervening at the eleventh hour to shake things up when a great deal of planning, both on the infrastructure and commuting sides, had already been done. On the L train, Cuomo went after the MTA and city Department of Transportation, reassured Brooklynites their neighborhoods can survive the partial closure, unveiled his new plan, and touted the state’s (read: his) willingness to innovate -- all the while trying to sweep under the rug the fact that he stayed away from shutdown plans for the previous three years.

Again, what’s the Governor really doing here? I spent more than a year researching the “Summer of Hell” and New York’s transit management, uncovering why Cuomo would popularize impending doom and what his transit priorities are. He seizes opportunities to be, or appear to be, a savior who is helping commuters, while minimizing his political risk.

As he’s swooped in on the L train shutdown, Cuomo’s entire frame of discussion relates to commuters and commuting disruptions, with his plan presented as one that will drastically reduce challenges for L riders.

Cuomo’s team and various Cuomo political appointees, like Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton, relentlessly use the phrase “customer experience” to describe their project selection choices. They’re looking to improve transit’s touchpoints with the commuting public, they say. Yet, the terrible MTA customer experience was a major flashpoint in the gubernatorial primary and general elections that Cuomo nevertheless won by wide margins last year.

Cuomo’s particular project focus is controllable (ideally media-intense) situations: ones he can use to demonstrate tangible success to the public, because he’s fairly certain the outcome will raise a pathetically low bar for service. Though plowing through bureaucracy makes projects like the new Tappan Zee Bridge tough to execute, Cuomo uses it as an opportunity to brandish his image as a “doer,” even if he oversees the entrenched bureaucracy he maligns, and has positioned himself as a champion for infrastructure by taking some service bar layups, per se. He replaced the truly hellish Goethals Bridge, is renovating JFK and LaGuardia Airports (the country’s worst), installed WiFi and LED lighting in ugly subway stations, and built an app to more conveniently buy train tickets. And he made sure the new Tappan Zee is named after his father: the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge.

For the L train shutdown, Cuomo’s making his willingness to innovate visible relative to that of the MTA, which he does control despite his protestations. Presenting his advice from engineering experts, Cuomo touted big names like Tesla, Cornell, and Columbia so lay people understand how “outside the box” and the traditional bureaucracy he is going to address the tunnel and its users. He talked about never-tried-here methods that will make New York a national model, using European infrastructure methods considered superior, giving him another public relations advantage.

It’s difficult to know just how productively innovative Cuomo’s proposal is, though evaluations are ongoing, with the MTA Board briefed on Tuesday during an “emergency” meeting held at Cuomo’s behest. His language is reminiscent of when he solicited outside proposals to modernize the subway in 2017, as part of a “Genius Challenge” that ultimately bore little fruit. Ideally, the new L train plan will make a much bigger impact than the Genius Challenge did, but at this stage, there are plenty of questions to be answered.

Here’s one: Just how obvious is the new shutdown fix? Cuomo’s team feels it’s tremendous, Andy Byford, the still new and heralded president of MTA New York City Transit, admitted it’s enticing, some MTA board members are shocked but intrigued, and advocates like Riders Alliance Executive Director John Raskin remain skeptical. It’s astonishingly unclear in whom the public should place faith in making the correct project decision. Making matters more complex, the MTA Board's independence can’t be completely trusted in deciding which project is better. Interim Chair Freddy Ferrer has put his finger on the scale from the January 3 press conference onward.

In the past, Cuomo’s used project delivery as conduit to more power, and he’s clearly using the L train in a similar fashion. Situations where he’s able to beat the poor transit status quo are opportunities to show the state should be directly in charge, when it suits his narrative.

Cuomo’s projects at and around Amtrak-controlled Penn Station cultivate a potential takeover there, too. For starters, the governor is spearheading Moynihan Train Hall at Penn’s western edge without including New Jersey Transit on the project. Cuomo’s involvement in 2017 track repairs also saw him propose that New York State, not the federal government, operate Penn Station. Since then, Cuomo’s attempted to take control of the whole neighborhood around Penn.

For the subway, Cuomo has repeatedly questioned the MTA’s convoluted governing structure and wants to “blow it up.” He’s forcing the MTA Board’s hand in deciding which L train project is best, and some members (largely Mayor Bill de Blasio appointees) are publicly frustrated. However, the public’s discontent with the MTA and warranted aversion to a full shutdown gives the governor leverage in changing shutdown plans today, and blowing up the MTA tomorrow.

Cuomo needs public support in order for his takeover to work -- that’s why analyzing his communication is critical. Cuomo knows tearing things down with “outside the box” solutions appeals to desperate commuters, especially those seeking relief from the L-pocalypse. Under the guise of repeated complaints from people in Brooklyn, Cuomo is saving New Yorkers from the pain they’ve already been told is coming.

It’s a stunning reversal in government communication. For three years, officials at the MTA and city DOT were upfront about disruptions with locals and assumed the risk that comes with accountability; in exchange, riders would accommodate changes to daily life. This tacit agreement amounts to a commuting social contract.

Ironically, Cuomo helped write this script during the “Summer of Hell,” except this time (by virtue of association with running the MTA), Cuomo was stuck with accountability for a project he wasn’t running directly. Cuomo prioritizes controllable situations, and fallout from the possibly the greatest planned transit disaster in history does not qualify as such. So, Cuomo is hastily withdrawing himself from the original shutdown agreement -- let’s call it a breach of contract.

If the Board sticks with the original plan, Cuomo’s more off the hook than he would have been otherwise, but transit agencies’ jobs become harder. Floating an alternative is a tease to communities that, in all likelihood, face serious hardship. It hinders the MTA and DOT’s ability to get everyone on board (again) in surviving the “L-pocalypse.”

But, if Cuomo’s plan gets approved, which appears to be the more likely scenario, it spreads pain into more distant, seemingly manageable chunks. Yet, in the quest to absolve himself of responsibility for the old plan, the governor is creating an alternate, riskier scenario: he’s directly accountable for making the L-pocalypse a bearable experience.

Cuomo may have just thrown a low-pressure system into a brewing superstorm, like when the “Summer of Hell” crisis narrative Cuomo created blew up in his face. By intervening on behalf of 230,000 Long Islanders, Cuomo unintentionally gave millions of subway and bus riders city-wide a succinct term to express their long-festering frustrations, plus point the finger his way. Backed into a corner, Cuomo and former MTA Chair Joe Lhota enacted a Subway Action Plan for short-term fixes, though Andy Byford’s long-term Fast Forward plan remains unfunded.

If the L train shutdown plans are scrapped, and the governor does “blow up” the MTA, can Cuomo really pick up the pieces? Only one person ever, former MTA Chairman Dick Ravitch, has proven capable of successfully overhauling the MTA; it took him a decade of nonstop, focused effort. With that in mind, will Cuomo be around long enough and truly committed to implement meaningful structural reform?

Over the coming weeks, it will be critical to translate what Cuomo tells the public into his future transit action items. In the meantime, it’s essential all the questions about the new proposal are answered, and to remember 2017 as we examine Cuomo’s words and actions with a critical eye.

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Tim Lazaroff is a freelance journalist specializing in transit.

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The Case Against Public Campaign Financing in New York


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Senator Young, the author (photo: @SenatorCathyYoung)


It’s a new day in New York. On January 1, the Senate Republican Conference, our state’s last line of defense against tax-and-spend, downstate-centric policies, assumed its new role as the minority party in the New York State Senate.

While many in New York are cheering this change, many others are wary. They should be.

A host of progressive, and in some cases, extremist, agenda items are being pushed by Governor Cuomo and the Democratic majorities in each house of the Legislature.

One of the first items on their list is passage of legislation enacting a statewide system of public campaign financing, modeled after New York City’s matching-funds program. Democrats claim there is broad support for such a change and that it would increase political competitiveness and reduce corruption.

Facts show that they are wrong.

No one would argue that corruption is not a problem in New York’s political system. Senate Republicans took the lead in passing a sweeping package of reforms in 2018 - widely lauded by good government groups - that would have targeted Albany’s “pay-to-play” culture and other corruption culprits. It died in the Democrat-led Assembly.

Democrats claim that public financing of campaigns is a cure for the corruption problem. The city’s small donor matching funds program, enacted in 1989, provides participating candidates with $6 for every $1 a New York City resident donates, up to $175 (and those numbers are set to increase in future elections). The system was intended to bring integrity to the campaign process by empowering small donors and diminishing the influence of special interests.

However, an honest examination of the system shows it has fallen far short of its laudable goals. In fact, the system has proven to be an additional channel for campaign corruption.

Establishment of the public financing system has allowed ethically challenged candidates and their operatives to cheat the taxpayer-funded program by creating fake donors, called “straw donors,” to receive matching funds. Former comptroller and mayoral candidate John Liu, a newly-elected State Senator, was fined more than $26,000 for a straw-donor scandal that resulted in jail time for an aide and a fund-raiser. He has a lot of company: Bill de Blasio, Malcolm Smith, Anthony Weiner, Dan Halloran, Jesse Hamilton, Albert Alvarez, Al Baldeo, Ron Reale are just a few of many city politicians associated with public campaign finance scandals.

It is not a track record that inspires confidence.

Supporters of publicly financed campaigns also promote the feel-good idea that the system encourages political competition by making it easier for political newcomers and less well-funded outsiders to run for office. A December 2017 Georgetown Public Policy Review found this theory to simply be wishful thinking.

Its examination of incumbent re-election rates for state legislators in states offering taxpayer-funded campaign programs and those without such programs found no statistically significant difference. Incumbency rates for the groups were 89 and 91 percent, respectively.

Similarly, the hoped-for impact on civic engagement also has not been realized. In the first two mayoral elections under public financing in New York City, 1989 and 1993, voter turnout was 60 percent and 57 percent. In 2013 turnout was 26 percent and in 2017, it was 23.9 percent. These decreases have occurred even as the size of the taxpayer-funded match has risen significantly, starting as 1:1 in 1989 rising to 6:1 in the most recent election. It is now moving to 8:1.

Given these poor results, it is impossible to justify using taxpayer dollars for such a system. In New York City, the fiscal year 2018 budget for the Campaign Finance Board was $56.7 million, including $10.6 million for staff and $40.2 million for campaign matching funds. The cost to implement a system similar to the city’s on a statewide scale has been estimated at between $200 million and $300 million. With New York State projected to have a $3 billion budget deficit in the forthcoming fiscal year, and a slowing stock market that will only make the deficit worse, the notion of creating a vast, new state bureaucracy to dole out taxpayer funds to political candidates is irrational.   

Even absent any deficit, diverting taxpayer funds to pay for political campaigns and negative television ads is indefensible.

As Stephen Eide, a scholar with the Manhattan Institute, argues “what governments spend taxpayer dollars on is as significant as how much they spend. Unlike public financing for, say, cleaner streets or better schools, public financing of elections provides a private benefit – serving the needs of officeholders, staffers and consultants engaged in politics as a career.”

All this begs the question: where does the public stand on taxpayer-financed campaigns? Studies indicate that the majority of the public is opposed. Recent surveys (Quinnipiac, 2017) found that 54 percent of survey respondents were opposed to public campaign financing; 12 percent had no opinion; and only 34 percent were in favor.

While one-party rule is now a reality in New York state government, those in power need to remember their overriding duty is to act in the best interests of all New Yorkers.

Public campaign financing is a device to benefit politicians, not the public. New York can’t afford it fiscally or ethically -- not now, not ever.

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State Senator Catharine M. Young represents the 57th District, including Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, and portions of Livingston County. She is the Ranking Republican member on the Senate committees of Elections and Ethics and Internal Governance. On Twitter @SenatorYoung.

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Note: this column has been updated with the latest budget deficit forecast provided by Governor Cuomo on January 15.

The Green New Deal New York Needs, From Its Original Source


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Gov. Cuomo (photo via the Governor's office)


In outlining his agenda for the first 100 days of his third term, Governor Cuomo said in December he would launch a Green New Deal. I have been calling for a Green New Deal since 2010 in three Green Party gubernatorial campaigns against him.

Cuomo has already nominally adopted a number of my platform planks, including the fracking ban, marriage equality, a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free public college, paid family leave, and legalization of marijuana. Unfortunately, the implementation of some of these measures fall short of full realization and the same appears to be true for what will be Cuomo’s Green New Deal.

The Green Party’s Green New Deal would fulfill the full promise of the original New Deal as articulated by President Franklin Roosevelt in his last State of the Union address in 1944 when he called upon Congress to enact a second, economic bill of rights, including the rights to a job, an adequate income, decent housing, comprehensive health care, and a good education. What makes it a Green New Deal is that the rapid build out of a 100% clean energy system would provide the sustainable economic foundation for the realization of economic human rights for all.

The only specific measure Cuomo announced is a goal of 100% clean electricity by 2040. The reality is that electricity accounts for only about 20% of New York’s carbon emissions. We must also zero out the other 80% of greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation, buildings, industrial, commercial, and agricultural sectors. Cuomo’s Green New Deal thus falls far short of the reduction in carbon emissions that climate science indicates is needed to avert the tipping points of runaway global warming and a climate catastrophe of widespread extinctions, collapsing ecosystems, food and water shortages, generalized impoverishment, masses of climate refugees, and resource wars.

The recent International Panel on Climate Change report says net zero carbon emissions by 2050 across all sectors worldwide is needed in order to stay under a “safe” rise in global temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial temperature. The world already reached a rise of 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in 2015. Because the UN’s IPPC reports have to be approved by the major petro-states and carbon emitters such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, Brazil, and the United States, their reports have consistently underestimated the pace of global warming and understated the measures needed to stem it. Independent studies by climate scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen and his colleagues conclude that global warming must be limited to 1 degree Celsius to avoid the tipping points of runaway warming, which requires carbon emissions to zero out in 15 years combined with drawing down existing atmospheric carbon through massive reforestation and rebuilding living soils through sustainable agriculture.

The good news is that a crash program for clean energy is economically and technically feasible. And make no mistake, this is an emergency that must be dealt with as such.

Following up on a 2009 study demonstrating the planetwide feasibility of 100% clean energy by 2030, Mark Jacobson and colleagues found in a 2013 study for New York that a 100% renewable energy system by 2030 was not only feasible, but would create an economic boom. It would create 4.5 million jobs construction and manufacturing jobs during the build out. It would improve public health (more than 3,000 New Yorkers die annually from air pollution) and lower electric rates up to 50% compared to the continued use of fossil and nuclear fuels.

A Green New Deal for New York should start with the NY Off Fossil Fuels Act (A5105A/S5908A), which halts all new fossil fuel infrastructure and creates a program for 100% clean energy by 2030.

The Off Fossil Fuels Act requires state, county, and local governments to adopt detailed, enforceable clean energy plans with two-year benchmarks, timelines, and reporting. It would require new buildings to have net zero carbon emissions by 2020 and new vehicles to be emissions free by 2025. It has strong environmental justice provisions for a “just transition” that ensures that low-income communities and communities of color, and communities dependent on fossil fuel and nuclear plants, are made whole in terms of jobs, wages, benefits, and tax revenues during the transition.

Climate action must be linked to economic justice to sustain political support. New York’s Green New Deal should also embrace the New York Health Act for universal health care, fully-funded public schools, tuition-free public colleges, and building quality public housing to address the housing affordability crisis.

New York’s Green New Deal should halt new fracked-gas pipelines and power plants. The corruption-ridden Competitive Power Ventures fracked-gas power plant in Orange County alone will add 10% to the state’s carbon emissions. The governor supports upgrading the Sheridan Avenue gas plant to power, heat, and cool state government buildings on Empire State Plaza. That plant has poisoned and sickened the largely low-income African-American Arbor Hill neighborhood for over a century by burning coal, oil, garbage, and now gas.

Governor Cuomo should use his authority under the Clean Water Act to deny permits to gas pipelines and power plants, which invariably negatively impact streams and watersheds. He should embrace the Renewable Heat Campaign to replace gas heating with ground- and air-source heat pumps. He should fix the existing Green Homes Green Jobs program to energy retrofit hundreds of thousands of homes for insulation, efficiency, and heat pumps. He should compel the DEC and NYSERDA to complete and report out their long-delayed study he asked for two years ago to plan a transition to 100% clean energy (a report we are now told will not be released).

Jacobson and colleagues put the capital cost for a 100% clean energy system at $460 billion. The $14 billion clean energy loan guarantee program of the 2009 Obama stimulus leveraged 47 times more in private investment. Using a conservative 10 to 1 leveraging ratio, a state investment of $46 billion would generate the $460 billion.  

The money should come from a combination of taxes and lending. The pending bills for a progressive state carbon tax would generate at least $7 billion a year, more than enough to invest $4.6 billion a year over ten years. A carbon tax will enhance the leverage of public investments by creating predictable market signals for savings from private clean energy investments. A state public bank could extend the credit for private clean energy investments at lower cost than borrowing through Wall Street, with the interest and principal returning to the state for public purposes. Taking public ownership of all power utilities, and operating them at cost for public benefit instead of at cost-plus-profits for absentee owners, will enable us to plan the energy transition for lower cost and without obstruction from the vested interests of the incumbent utility, fossil fuel, and nuclear industries.

If these measures sound like democratic socialism, they are. The federal government nationalized 25% of U.S. manufacturing during World War II in order to turn industry on a dime to build the “arsenal of democracy” that defeated the Nazis. We need nothing less to defeat climate change.

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Howie Hawkins is a three-time New York gubernatorial nominee of The Green Party and long-time climate activist. On Twitter @HowieHawkins.

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Public Advocate Election Makes Case for Instant Runoff Voting


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(photo: Gotham Gazette)


If the 2018 election cycle is any indication, voter turnout is on the rise. Now is the time to take advantage of this moment to keep voters engaged in the electoral system and really give them a voice.

One of the best ideas for promoting more diverse, open, and democratic elections is instant runoff voting (IRV). In New York City primaries, runoffs are forced for citywide elected positions when votes are split and no one candidate receives more than 40 percent of the vote. With IRV, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins with a first choice majority of 50 percent, the lowest vote-getters are eliminated, and the ballots where they were selected first are added to the next choice among the candidates advancing to the next round of the instant runoff. And so on, until one candidate hits 50 percent.

In 2013 – the last time a runoff was held, in the Democratic primary for Public Advocate – it resulted in an additional multi-million dollar election and a drastic decline in voter turnout to just 6.9 percent. And runoff elections are often made up of an older, whiter, and wealthier electorate. This is no way to run an election. Nor is accepting city leaders being elected with a low percentage of votes that negate the votes of the majority.

Given the recent election of Letitia James to the office of Attorney General, the public advocate is now vacant. More than 20 people have declared their candidacies, a list that seems to have grown daily for weeks. If the actual number of candidates on the February 26 ballot is anywhere close to 15 or 20, this special election we will likely see votes widely split among the candidates, ensuring that no one will win a majority of the vote. And while there would be no runoff based on city law (there are no runoffs in special elections), this election could nonetheless be a poster child in the case for instant runoff voting, which is also known as ranked-choice voting, giving more voters an actual say in choosing the next public advocate.

It should be noted that there will be another public advocate election this fall, where another crowded field could lead to a runoff, to fill out the rest of James’ term through the end of 2021. The winner of the special election is assured the office for the rest of this year only.

We will also have a environment in 2021 where ranked-choice voting will be essential. The races for mayor and comptroller are all but certain to be open, with no incumbent, and there will be another public advocate race, not to mention races for all five borough presidencies and all of the City Council. Those 2021 City Council elections, in which 36 current members are term-limited and all 51 seats up for election, will see a flood of candidates. Many races, especially the Democratic primaries, could see four, five, six, or even more candidates. Winners of a number of races may only have a plurality of the votes, unless we enact ranked-choice voting. And the citywide races could feature runoffs unless we act smartly in advance.

In 2018, the mayoral Charter Revision Commission reviewed policies that would make our city a better functioning democracy, among them, IRV. Despite widespread support, the commission bucked on the opportunity to put IRV on the ballot. It is disappointing that the commission missed this chance. Despite this, we have other avenues in which to institute IRV.

This session in Albany, I will be looking at how we can implement IRV through state legislation, engaging with my colleagues in both the Assembly and the Senate on why this policy is beneficial not only in saving taxpayer money, but also in helping us to elect candidates more representative of the city we live in, including more women and more people of color.

The 2018 Charter Commission’s failure to fully address IRV creates opportunity for action in Albany, and I expect to see people from all political sides coalesce around IRV as we move beyond whether or not it is a good idea to how, where, and when to implement it.

Instant runoff voting is used in major cities, such as San Francisco, Oakland, and Minneapolis, and this year Maine became the first state in the country to use it for congressional elections. We have allowed other states and cities to take the lead on smart and innovative voter reform while New York has stood by.

We are a city and state that often considers ourselves to be on the front lines of progressivism, but on voting reform, we often fall short. We should capitalize on the opportunities we have now going into future elections to ensure that all voices are heard and New York City and State stand up for democracy.

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Walter Mosley is a member of the New York State Assembly representing Brooklyn neighborhoods including Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, and parts of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant. On Twitter @WalterTMosley.

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LIRR’s Heavy Subsidies and the Coming Debate Over MTA Funding


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(photo via the Governor's Office)


This fall Governor Cuomo signed a campaign pledge with Long Island State Senate Democratic candidates, many of whom won their elections, to make New York City bear greater responsibility for the subway and bus system’s capital needs. The campaign pledge was the continuation of a long-standing demand by the governor that New York City contribute more toward the enormous costs of the MTA capital budget. He even suggested in his budget proposal that the city take full financial responsibility for the MTA New York City Transit capital plan, but it was not accepted by the Legislature at the time of budget adoption in April 2018.

The political candidates from Long Island who signed that pledge may not have realized that today the Long Island Rail Road is the most heavily subsidized operation of the three transit systems, including New York City Transit and Metro North.

These excerpts from the new MTA budget, adopted in December, show that LIRR riders pay the lowest share of the respective operating budgets of the three systems. Called the FareBox Operating Ratio, the table shows the percentage of each system’s costs paid for by the fare and other basic operating revenue, like advertising. The data come from the MTA Dec. 2018 Adopted Budget, p. 1-7, Vol.2.

FAREBOX OPERATING RATIOS

  November Forecast 2018 Final Proposed Budget 2019 Plan 2020 Plan 2021 Plan 2022
New York City Transit 52.50% 51.10% 49.90% 48.50% 47.10%
Long Island Railroad 47.80% 43.40% 42.30% 39.30% 38.30%
Metro-North 54.20% 54.80% 54.90% 56.20% 56.40%


The data show the LIRR farebox will contribute 43.4% of the LIRR’s operating costs in 2019 and declines to about 38% by 2022. New York City Transit’s fare provides 51.1% in 2019 and about 47% in 2022. Metro North riders contribute a higher share than either system. The costs do not include debt service, which must be paid, of course, or an item like depreciation, for which there is no out-of-pocket cash charge but still measures wear and tear on the original costs of putting assets in service. The MTA also provides the FareBox Recovery Ratio, which shows theses fare revenue and cost figures.

Is there a dollar figure that can be put on the LIRR’s higher loss ratio, compared to the other MTA systems? I have made an estimate that adds debt service to operating expenses.

First one can look at the amount of fare and other revenue each part of the system contributes to the total amount of revenue. New York City Transit fare revenue brings in $4.87 billion a year, 75% of total system revenue. The Long Island Rail Road brings in $790 million a year, about 12% of total system revenue.

FAREBOX AND OTHER OPERATING REVENUES

  Revenue (000) % Total System Fare & Other
NYCT $4,870,000 75.2
LIRR $790,000 12.2
MN $815,000 12.6
TOTAL $6,475,000 100


Then one can compare the percentage of system revenue contributions with the total deficits each part of the system experiences. The deficits have to be made up from taxes and other subsidies.

  OptgExp DebtSvc TotalExp Deficit %ofDef Compare %RevCont
NYCT 8,754 1,324 10,078 5,208 70.9  Over $312
LIRR 1,686 449 2,135 1,345 18.3 Under $448
MN 1,322 285 1,607 792 10.8 Over $134
 TOTAL 11,762 2,058 13,820 7,345    


This analysis shows that the Long Island Rail Road’s deficit is $1.345 billion a year and is more than 18% of the MTA’s total deficit, although its fare and other operating revenue provide about 12% of the MTA’s total revenue. The difference -- 12% vs. 18% -- amounts to an under-contribution by the Long Island Rail Road from the fare of $448 million a year that has to be made up by taxes and subsidies. New York City Transit is about 71% of the system’s total deficit. If one measured NYCT’s percentage of contributing revenue, compared to the percentage of the deficit, NYCT fares are over-contributing $312 million a year more than the taxes and subsidies needed to make up the deficit.

New York City Transit’s deficit, $5.2 billion, is numerically far larger than the deficits of the other two systems, but that is not really an issue because the New York City economy is the main generator of the taxes and subsidies within the region that are used to make up the deficits.

The money to make up the system deficits comes overwhelmingly from a group of taxes enacted by the state Legislature levied on the metropolitan region but not Upstate New York. Begun in the early 1980s and continued into the 21st century, the regional taxes include a payroll tax, a surcharge on corporate profits, a sliver of the sales tax, the mortgage recording tax, and a New York City stand-alone commercial real property transfer tax. The commuter rail systems and New York City Transit split about $590 million in surpluses from the bridge and tunnel tolls about 60%-40% for the suburban systems pursuant to an early ‘70s formula. The state, city, and county governments contribute small amounts from their general funds.

About 75% of the wages paid within the region go to persons employed in New York City, according to 2017 data from the state Labor Department, and that compensation forms the base of the payroll tax. A Rockefeller Institute of Government estimate of business profits surcharges from 2009 data showed nearly 78% of taxes from business profits in the region came from the city (and the city is a larger share of the regional economy today than nine years ago). This surcharge is the second largest dedicated regional tax contributor for the system.

One large dedicated tax to the MTA is the city’s commercial real property transfer tax, which provides a sum of more than $600 million a year for New York City Transit. Looking at where these streams of revenue come from leaves little doubt that taxes collected within the city cover New York City Transit’s farebox deficits and, must, by logical extension, cover some of the Long Island Rail Road’s deficits too.

The governor justifies his demands that the city cover more system cost by citing a 1953 law that created the New York City Transit Authority and required the city cover its capital costs. With cost estimates of the MTA’s next capital plan, and New York City Transit President Andy Byford’s Fast Forward Plan, reaching $40-$60 billion, who should pay is a very important question. But the answer already exists.

As the transit system deteriorated during the New York City-State financial crisis of the ‘70s, Governor Carey and the Legislature devised a solution to the problem of the city’s obligation to cover the NYCT capital costs. That solution was the set of dedicated taxes just listed above, the enactment of which began in 1981-82.

Since the city only has the power to increase the property tax and has many basic governmental obligations already (schools, police, social welfare), the city would have needed the Legislature to approve a group of special new taxes to cover the transit system’s costs at that time. The Legislature just required the region’s residents and businesses to do indirectly -- pay new taxes going to the MTA -- that which the city and the other local governments would have had to do directly -- levy new taxes -- for the same purpose. If the city was forced to contribute billions in new revenue to the transit system it would need to get permission from the Legislature for new taxes now, just as it would have had to do nearly 40 years ago. Otherwise funding for the basics like schools, cops, sheltering the homeless, etc., could be seriously impaired.

The net effect of the regional taxes was that New York City residents and businesses continued financial responsibility for the system anyway since most of the taxes collected came from the city. The taxes from the suburbs contribute to the commuter rail system, except the Long Island Rail Road’s riders don’t cover a proper share of that system’s costs and get subsidized by taxes collected from the remainder of the region.

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Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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Proposed Changes to ‘Public Charge’ and Access to City Benefits: What To Know


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


New Yorkers know that it is the city government’s job to make sure that they’re taken care of. We fill potholes, pick up the trash, clean the streets, clear the drains, prune the trees - you name it.

But that’s not all we do. And while we faced many challenges as a city and as a nation in 2018, New Yorkers continue to step up and help their neighbors in need.

Through our public health facilities, tens of thousands of dedicated professionals help their fellow New Yorkers put food on the table, help expectant mothers get access to critical health care, help seniors make ends meet, and so much more. We even helped non-English speaking eligible voters participate in our democracy, by expanding our poll-site interpretation program. We work to serve New Yorkers every day because that’s our number one job. It’s why we’re here.

Back in October, the Trump administration announced a proposal concerning “public charge,” a complex aspect of immigration law. If implemented, the proposal would make it easier for immigration officials to prevent an otherwise eligible person from getting a green card or certain kinds of visas. They could make that life-changing decision just because one day, the applicant could find herself or himself down on their luck and in need of important public resources.

Over 200,000 public comments were submitted to the federal register – a truly remarkable display of civic participation and responsiveness from residents of all walks of life. We thank you, and every single New Yorker who took the time to make their voice heard on this issue.

We can all agree that in this country – in this city – of immigrants, no one should have to choose between relying on the help for which they’re legally eligible and pursuing the American Dream.

In the past few months, we’ve heard from folks across the five boroughs, some scared or confused, and even more who want to know how to help their fellow New Yorkers.

So let’s get some facts straight.

First: the public charge proposal is not in effect, and nothing about eligibility for benefits has changed. New York City’s doors remain open to those in need. The Department of Social Services is continuing to accept applications from all New Yorkers for benefits, and is continuing to deliver benefits and services to all who are eligible. The same is true for all of the public hospitals and community clinics operated by NYC Health + Hospitals. If you’re in need of health care, you’ll be able to find it there.

Second: many immigrants would not be impacted by this proposal. If you are a naturalized citizen, a refugee, an asylee, or a green card holder thinking about renewing or becoming a U.S. citizen, this proposal would not apply to you. This is also true for many other categories of immigrants.

That leads us to the next – and very important – point.

Third: If you are concerned about this proposal’s possible impacts on you or your family, don’t make any decisions without getting safe and trusted legal advice first.

You can get help in many languages by calling the Office of New Americans hotline, operated by Catholic Charities, at 1-800-566-7636. You can also call the city’s 311 and say “ActionNYC” to schedule a free consultation with a trusted immigration legal services provider, funded by the City of New York.

If New Yorkers begin to disenroll from health care, nutrition, or housing programs for which they’re eligible, the consequences could be dire. We could face a public health crisis and lose hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity annually.

As public servants, our job is to serve you. And in the fairest big city in America, no one should struggle alone. We’ve got your back.

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Bitta Mostofi is the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; Steven Banks is the Commissioner of the Department of Social Services, City Council Member Carlos Menchaca is chair of the Immigration Committee, City Council Member Mark Levine is chair of the Health Committee, City Council Member Stephen Levin is chair of the General Welfare Committee.

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