(photo: governor's office)
It’s decision time for the New York State Legislature on the State budget, due March 31, and it’s still not clear congestion pricing has the votes to pass. I’ve been an advocate for congestion pricing since Mayor Bloomberg first proposed it in 2007 and I know that this is the year to get it done.
The two houses of the State Legislature each pass a “one-house” budget resolution in early March to outline their budget priorities: this year the State Assembly one-house budget articulates that the Assembly majority supports a new long-term source of revenue for the MTA but does not specifically endorse congestion pricing. The State Senate one-house budget contains an articulated statement of support for congestion pricing. But no bill for congestion pricing has actually yet passed either house as the budget deadline approaches.
I was fortunate to serve in the Democratic majority my entire 32 years in the State Assembly, from 1985 through 2016; a legislator in the minority party frequently has little chance of getting many of their bills to pass. There are 150 members of the State Assembly and the Democratic majority frequently exceeded 100 in my years there; it is 107 right now.
The rule of thumb for putting a potentially controversial but important bill to a floor vote for passage in the Assembly has been that it needed 76 guaranteed Democratic votes, just over half the chamber, and today that means 76 out of the 107 Democrats, without relying on any Republican support. Usually this wasn’t a serious problem, in fact many bills are noncontroversial or routine and frequently pass with large numbers of Republicans voting for them too. A bill without that kind of support going to the floor has been quite rare.
Substantial opposition to congestion pricing has been the reason the proposal was never brought to a vote in the Assembly when Michael Bloomberg was Mayor in 2007 and 2008, or when Governor Cuomo announced he was backing it last year. It is why the governor, the Assembly, and the Senate have yet to announce a deal on this concept with less than 10 days before the budget deadline. If Speaker Heastie determines a congestion pricing bill might have 32 Democratic votes against, and therefore at most 75 Democratic votes, he probably wouldn’t put it on the floor for a vote, especially if there was a risk that all 43 Republicans would vote against it.
Are 32 Democratic Assembly votes against congestion pricing a real possibility? The answer is yes - a real possibility - or it could be extremely close to 32, with a number of members on the fence or not wanting to be forced to take a vote on the issue. There is substantial opposition in Queens, where there are 17 Democratic members, and, to a lesser extent, Brooklyn, which has 20 Democratic members, where opposition in the southern and furthest east sections of the borough was substantial at the time I was serving just a few years ago.
There are ten Democratic members from Long Island, including several just recently elected who might be concerned about taking a risky vote, two Democratic members from Staten Island, and four Democratic members from Rockland, Orange, and Sullivan counties where many people who work in the city drive in and where mass transit options north and west of the Hudson River to New York City are not good. There are seven Democratic members from Westchester and there is no guarantee all of them will vote for congestion pricing, nor is there a guarantee that all 22 members from Manhattan and the Bronx will vote yes.
One possibility is that the language authorizing congestion pricing will simply be put into a bigger budget bill, such as the main bill authorizing the transportation and economic development budget as a whole. Since there would be tens of billions of dollars of general road, bridge, and mass transit financing in such a bill, a member would have to vote against the whole package, including things he or she might want, just to vote no on congestion pricing. This is always the dilemma of large authorizations for funding packages, but effective for accomplishing a result despite opposition inside the majority party.
Should congestion pricing fail, there are plenty of alternatives but they might face other political problems. Revenue from state taxes is $80 billion a year, three-quarters of which comes from the metropolitan area, and New York City tax revenue is $60 billion a year. Governor Cuomo was seeking about $1 billion a year from congestion pricing - just a fraction of the revenue base of the metropolitan area. However, without congestion pricing, some fraction of a broader-based tax would likely have to be enacted. The new Senate Democratic majority, however, is aware Republicans are gunning for them in the next election, and might be reluctant to consider any tax increase that is broad-based.
If congestion pricing passes, it will be a major victory for mass transit, and I remain hopeful. The list of other severe challenges for the MTA is large and will hardly go away, but that can be the subject of another discussion.
Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.