a few days ago, the world as viewed from the State Capitol and City Hall, looked
far different than it does today. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver played his spoiler
role as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, fresh from Sun Valley, Idaho, desperately tried
to convince legislators to approve his plan to charge vehicles to enter or driver around Manhattan. Governor Eliot Spitzer
smiled coldly from the cover
of New York Magazine
defending the anger that has become his hallmark - including
his increasingly tawdry battle with Senator Majority Leader Joe Bruno. For his
part, Bruno expressed little use for the Assembly or Spitzer
Just another day in New York politics.
But following three days of plot turns that delighted bloggers up and down
the Hudson, by Thursday evening everything had changed. The four men - individually
-- announced deals on congestion pricing and campaign financing. A commission
would try to hash out a plan to fight traffic congestion, and new limits would
go into effect on contributions to candidates.
Still at the close of business last week, much remained murky, including when
the legislature and governor would approve the deal, details of the agreements
and the status of other outstanding issues, including legislative pay hikes,
a key part of New York City's solid waste plan, expansion of the state's DNA
database and more.
FOUR DAYS IN JULY
When legislators went home at the end of June, a number of issues remained
unresolved. One, campaign finance reform, was a top priority of Spitzer's but
Bruno stood in the way. Meanwhile, Bloomberg, with Bruno as an ally, was pressing
his congestion pricing proposal. According to the mayor, the state needed to
approve the plan by July
16 - last Monday - in order for the city to qualify for an estimated $500
million in federal
transportation funds. But many members of the legislature objected
to the driving fees and Silver seemed intent upon stymieing the plan. At the
same time, Spitzer was blocking a pay hike for legislators, an increase in turn
tied to raises
for the state's judges.
Bloomberg wanted the legislature to go back into session on July 16 and hammer
out its differences in time for the city to get the transportation aid from
Washington. But the putative deadline for the federal funds came
and went with no deal.
An irate Bloomberg fumed at Albany's
inaction. For their part, the denizens of the capitol said that, unable
or unwilling to deal with politics, the mayor had hurt his own cause. "When
it came time to deal with people he didn't control, he didn't know how to do
it," Assemblymember Richard Brodsky of Westchester, a key opponent of the
congestion pricing plan, told the Times.
But talks continued. Finally on Thursday afternoon, Spitzer announced agreement
on congestion pricing and campaign finance, along with two issues of less concern
to New York City: a capital spending measure targeted largely at upstate and
property tax relief for seniors. To the surprise of some, he did not mention
Four men in a room -- Spitzer, Silver, Bruno and, this time around, Bloomberg
or more accurately, his representative Kevin Sheekey - had sat behind closed
doors and hammered out a deal pundits called "The
Big Ugly." In the horse-trading of politics, seemingly disparate issues
became inextricably linked.
"Were this still a stand-alone issue, it would be dead right now,"
said Walter McCaffrey of Keep
NYC Congestion Tax Free, an anti tax group, referring to the fee. "If
anyone thinks this is not moving because of pay raises they are naive in the
At weeks' close, there was apparently no written official document detailing
the agreements on congestion pricing or campaign finance reform. The leadership
has not yet announced when members would assemble in Albany to vote on the deals
hashed out secretly. Experienced observers expect announcements on other matters,
particularly salaries, will be forthcoming but can't say what they will concern
and when they will be announced.
With so much confusion, any or all of the agreements could still collapse.
asked, "Will the deal hold long enough for lawmakers to come back?
Will Bloomberg really get his traffic plan? And will New York find happiness
in campaign finance reform?"
That said, here's the apparent status of the big issues at posting time.
• 70, Retired
• Staten Island
"We live in Staten Island, and we pay a lot of tolls. I know it works
in other countries, but we seem to have so many more people. It would
certainly be nice to get $500 million though."
• 22, Waiter in lower Manhattan
"I don't know much about it but it doesn't sound like a bad idea."
• 32, Jewelry designer
"People should be allowed to drive into the city and I don't think they
should be charging people more than what they already pay, especially
since most people already can't afford to live in the city."
• 41, Lawyer
• Lives and works on Long Island
• Drives to city a few times a month.
"There are probably alternatives that can be resorted to before we do
that, a last resort. I don't think we've tapped everything we need to
tap. I know there are other cities that don't allow trucks and deliveries
during certain hours, they make deliveries happen during the middle of
the night. I frequently see congestion here because of trucks blocking
• 46, Administrative assistant at Pace University
"You know, we're not on the highway, we're in the city. You're gonna
charge people, what, $4.50? That's ridiculous. $8.00? No, he lost his
mind. He could fix that manhole cover, that's 100 years old that blew
up. That would be a good thing."
• 35, Manager at Citigroup
• Subways, drives, bikes
"As someone who takes mass transit to work, I see first hand how badly
the subway system could use the extra funds that congestion pricing would
provide. As a cyclist, I'd be thrilled to see more cars taken off the
road. And as someone who has a car, I think anyone who drives into the
city during rush hour should be charged $8 for tying up traffic."
• 31, Construction project manager
• Lives and works in Queens
"It's a necessary evil. Traffic is getting noticeably worse even
within the 18 months I've owned a car. And it helps the environment, so
But I probably wouldn't drive into city if it gets implemented. I can't
afford $8 a day."
Last April, unveiling his PlaNYC
2030 for a more environmentally sustainable New York, Bloomberg proposed
charging a fee for cars and truck entering or driving around much of Manhattan
during peak hours. Known as congestion
pricing and modeled on a program in effect in London since 2003, the plan
was designed to reduce traffic and the pollution and congestion from it, generate
fees to fund improvements in mass transit and qualify the city for a half a
billion dollars in federal transportation aid.
Congestion pricing, and much of PlaNYC, won enthusiastic backing from an array
of environmental, labor and business groups. But it also encountered staunch
opposition from some politicians from Brooklyn and Queens and a number of
state legislators. Given that the measure required approval from the state government
that seemed likely to prove fatal.
Faced with a shattering defeat that could have affected many parts of PlaNYC,
Bloomberg late last week - three days after the deadline he had described as
inviolate -- accepted the kind of deal he had once dismissed. Similar to a proposal
previously made by Silver, the agreement sets up a commission to recommend a
plan to reduce traffic congestion in New York City. Although a written proposal
has not been released, Streetsblog
and other sources report that it would:
--Establish a 17-member commission with three members each appointed by the
mayor, the governor, the City Council speaker, the Senate majority leader and
the Assembly speaker. The Senate minority leader and the Assembly minority leader
would each get one appointee.
--After holding hearings and reviewing information, the commission will submit
a plan to reduce traffic to the legislature, governor, mayor and City Council
by January 31, 2008.
--The plan must be expected to reduce traffic by at least 6.3 percent.
--The City Council must first approve the plan. It would then require approval
by the legislature and governor.
--All of this is contingent on the U.S. Department of Transportation providing
at least $200 million.
Despite the many steps the city must go through before it can implement congestion
pricing, Bloomberg remained impatient. "We will begin immediately to prepare
for the installation of needed equipment to make our traffic plan a reality,"
Silver tried to put on the brakes. The mayor, the Assembly speaker told a press
conference, is "prohibited from collecting a fee... He can put cameras
on every street corner, but he can't use them to collect a fee."
Silver's cautions aside, advocacy groups had a generally upbeat reaction to
last week's actions in Albany.
"Today is a watershed day for the health and the future of New York City,"
said a statement from Michael O'Loughlin, director of Campaign
for New York's Future. In her official reaction, Marcia Bystryn, executive
director of the New York League
of Conservation Voters said, "We can all breathe a little bit easier
today - and every day in the future - thanks to the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg,
Assembly Speaker Silver, Majority Leader Bruno and Governor Spitzer."
While advocates recognize much work needs to be done, "six months ago
no one would have said we would have gotten this far. We've made enormous strides,"
said Neysa Pranger, campaign coordinator of the Straphangers
Campaign in an interview.
"Elected officials - the four men in that room - came to agreement that
something needed to be done about traffic and air pollution and transit funding,"
said Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation
Alternatives. "A course has been set for action. It has gone beyond
The Looming Fight
The compromise changes the political equation by bringing the City Council
into the picture - something Bloomberg had sought to avoid. While City Council
Speaker Christine has endorsed the plan, her members seem largely divided. One
count compiled by the Daily
Politics lists 11 members other than Quinn as essentially in favor and nine
as opposed or having major reservations. That leaves 30 members whose position
is not known.
""I'm surprised that more council members aren't talking," said
Queens Councilmember Tony Avella, who opposes the fees. "Even though it's
the state legislature that will ultimately make the decision, the council should
play a role."
Councilmember David Weprin who has opposed congestion pricing from day one,
said he thinks most of his colleague agree with him.
But despite apparent opposition, City Councilmember John Liu, head of the transportation
committee and a supporter, thinks many members will come around. Getting improvements
in mass transit - particularly better express bus service for more distant parts
of the outer boroughs - could go a long way toward persuading skeptical council
members, he said. Now, Liu said, many New Yorkers have to "hop on a local
bus for a half hour to get to the subways and then if they can even squeeze
themselves in" have a 90-minute trip to work in Manhattan. If those riders
could instead take a good, reliable express bus to their jobs, councilmembers,
Liu thinks, would feel more comfortable "imposing that charge on people
who still insist upon driving their own cars."
And even if the council can be won over, the legislature remains a barrier
- and maybe not just the openly obstreperous Assembly. On Monday night, "congestion
pricing could not muster enough votes in the Republican Senate. No one should
forget that," McCaffrey said, adding that even some Senate Republicans,
the groups thought to be most supportive of the idea, opposed it.
The Final Answer
So, what could emerge?
Supporters of congestion pricing think their plan will triumph.
Liu, in fact, thinks it may be all but inevitable. "I don't know how long
we can stave it off in New York City," he said.
While congestion pricing has proved successful in London, many of the alternatives
- restricting access to the city on certain days, for example - have not worked
as well, according to Pranger.
And she thinks the logic of congestion pricing remain inescapable: It offers,
she said, " the benefit of assisting those who can afford to get around
the least which far outweigh charging drivers who are by and large wealthier."
But Hope Cohen, deputy director of the Center
for Rethinking Development at the Manhattan Institute says alternate ideas
could win more support and still meet federal guidelines for getting the transportation
aid. Those requirements including some "tolling component" - not necessarily
a congestion fee -- and using technology. (Cohen notes that under the federal
rules, any plan must also promote telecommuting as a means to reduce car trips.)
One possibility, which Cohen termed "the most American thing out there," would
set aside special high occupancy vehicle lanes and charge people to use them.
The next several months will provide "the opportunity for this to be looked
at in a more thorough fashion," said McCaffrey. He hopes that discussion
will give rise to alternate solutions, such as stricter laws barring cars from
"blocking the box" and removing tens of thousands of permit that allow
city employees to park for free.
Whatever emerges, Pranger said, "After a three-month gap, people are finally
talking about the details and what will work. That's a useful and good sign."
As much as Bloomberg wanted congestion pricing, Spitzer wanted
campaign finance reform. He had been vowing to clean up Albany since before
he became governor and campaign finance reform was an integral part of that drive.
Certainly many would argue that change was long overdue. It has been more than
three decades since New York revised its campaign finance laws. The neighboring
states of New Jersey and Connecticut have introduced some aspects of publicly
financed campaigns and pay to play regulations. New York City far surpassed
the state on campaign finance regulations years ago and instituted
even more restrictions earlier this month. But the
state lagged behind, setting few constraints on who could donate to political
campaigns or how much they could contribute.
The accord last week came after a period of intense acrimony - including profanity-laced
tirades and accusations of spying - between Spitzer and his campaign finance
nemesis Bruno. The agreement delighted some good government groups, but they
cautioned, the proposed changes are just a start. The changes do not go into
effect until 2009 - the year after what could be a bloody - and expensive fight
- between Democrats and Republicans for control of the State Senate.
Without a bill, it is difficult to analyze what the legislation, if and when
it's passed and signed, would or would not allow. But in announcing the agreement
on Thursday, the governor's office did reveal some details:
- Individuals will be limited to contributing $25,000 to a candidate for statewide
office, down from the current ceiling of more than $50,000.
- For State Senate candidates, the contribution limits would be $11,500, down from
- Maximum donation to an Assembly candidate would drop to $4,600 from $7,600.
These limits are far more lenient than those for federal or New York City elections.
For example, the maximum amount an individual can give to a candidate for mayor
In addition, the new campaign finance system would:
-- Close the corporate subsidy loophole. Under current
state finance laws, corporations can give only $5,000 annually to a campaign.
But corporate subsidies are treated as separate entities, with each one able
to contribute $5,000. Under the agreement, a corporation and its subsidiaries
would be treated as one unit, allowed to contribute a total of $5,000.
--Bar contributions from lobbyists
--Prohibit contributions from so-called limited liability companies that were recently
created or have few, if any, assets. This is aimed at special
interests groups, which create dozens of pseudo-partnerships to avoid complying
with limits on campaign contribution.
--Phase in caps on contributions to political parties' "housekeeping"
accounts. These accounts are supposed to cover the parties' organizational activities
but are often actually used to finance campaigns. A $300,000 annual cap would
take effect in 2009, decreasing to $150,000 in 2013.
--Require individuals to list their occupation and employer when they make
campaign contributions. Contributors would also have to disclose who, if anyone,
is bundling, or collecting, money from multiple donors for one campaign.
A First Step?
The agreement does not include public financing of campaigns, and many other
aspects of it remain vague. Reviewing this, good government groups and advocates
said the new rules represent a step in the right direction, but do not go nearly
"The contributions were dramatically lowered, but by any point of comparison
they are still dramatically high," said Suzanne Novak, the deputy director
of the democracy program at the Brennan
Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. "I think
everybody including Governor Spitzer agrees that this is only a first step...
There a nine million things in New York that needs to be corrected."
Some reforms initially on Spitzer's agenda appear to have been lost.
One, said Novak, would have prohibited the "personal use" of campaign
contributions. Currently use of these funds is largely unrestricted, letting
legislators and candidates use their campaign funds on everything from flowers
to lavish dinners at swanky restaurants. But putting control on this is anathema
to some legislators in Albany, said those involved in the negotiations.
The compromise also sidesteps further limits on contributions from political
action committees. New York has the highest cap in the nation for contributions
from these committees in a governor's race -- more than $50,000 per election
cycle, according to the Brennan Center.
Overall, advocates see the agreement as weaker than what the governor initially
wanted. "The proposal that started off from the governor was a strong proposal,
because it addressed each of the areas that need improvement in the state campaign
finance laws," said Russ Haven of the New
York Public Interest Research Group. "In the beginning they were very
significant, but they weren't radical overhauls. In the natural progress, there
were some areas that either fell off the table or got weakened."
Some political professionals do not expect the reforms to change much. "It's
going to mean that fundraisers are going to have to be more inventive to get
big bucks, but they will," said Norman Adler, president of lobbying firm
Bolton-St. Johns. "It's
like water in a basement. No matter what you do it always creeps in."
For their part, good government forces hope to see a second phase of campaign
finance reform that would include the public financing of campaigns. But considering
state leaders have not even approved this first phase - and Spitzer has expressed
readiness to move onto other issues - a second part could be unlikely anytime
The legislators left a number of other issues unresolved when they ended their
regular legislative session. These are some pieces of unfinished business of
particular interest to the city:
Gansevoort Recycling Station: Bloomberg's solid waste plan for the city calls
for construction of a recycling
station on Gansevoort peninsula in the Hudson River. Because the land is
in Hudson River Park, the city needs state approval to build the station there.
The Senate has said yes, but the issue stalled in the Assembly, where several
Manhattan members have moved to block construction. The station, city officials
said, is vital to its overall waste management plan.
Tax Credits for Housing: The legislature has approved a version of 421a, a
city program that provides tax breaks to housing developers in an effort to
encourage construction of affordable housing. The mayor and City Council had
their own version late last year. But the version approved by the legislature
- and apparently authored by Assemblymember Vito Lopez of Brooklyn -- included
a huge tax
break for Bruce Ratner's controversial Atlantic Yards project. And according
to the city housing agency, the legislature's bill places additional conditions
on developers that would hamper
the city's effort to promote building of middle class housing. Bloomberg and
Quinn have both urged Spitzer to veto it.
DNA Data Bank: Spitzer would like to expand
the collection of DNA to individuals found guilty of felonies or misdemeanors,
in state prison or on parole or probation. The measure has been stalled in past
years in the Assembly.
Wicks Law: The legislature planned to overhaul the Wicks
Law -which requires multiple construction contracts for projects over $50,000.
The law allegedly increases construction costs by 20 percent. A measure has
passed the Assembly, but not the Senate.
Brownfields: Spitzer introduced
legislation in early June to overhaul how the state would distribute tax credits
to businesses and nonprofits that clean up, restore and development contaminated
brownfield sites. The legislation stalled amid disputes between Spitzer and
The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.