Just 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 salaries.
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 extreme."
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. Capitol Confidential 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.
"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."
"I don't know much about it but it doesn't sound like a bad idea."
"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."
"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 the street."
"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."
"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."
"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 why not? 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," he said.
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 talk."
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 $15,500.
- 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 is $4,950.
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 far enough.
"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 soon.
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 proposed 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 Bruno.