By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
With New York City nonresident employees paying a puny 11 percent of the payroll tax rate for residents, less than in virtually any major city, the ongoing legislative move to kill the commuter tax is a declaration of regional war.
If suburban sponges won't pay a ratty average of $180 a year less than half a percent of their income to cover a fraction of the cost of the services they soak up from this city, they should have to hold their bowels every day until they can make it to a suburban sewer, and they should only be allowed in and out of town on state highways, bridges, or tunnels.
The commuters who travel by train should also see an end to their city subsidies. At least two-thirds of them ride a subway to their jobs after they get off Metro North or the Long Island Railroad, and this year's Transit Authority operating budget contains $230 million in city contributions, to say nothing of the $1.4 billion in city-financed capital improvements to the system planned for the next decade. Incredibly, the city "also provides over $63 million directly to the MTA to maintain Metro-North and LIRR stations in the five boroughs and for operating assistance for the commuter railroads," according to this year's budget message.
Rudy Giuliani stood up for his city last week when his own party's two Albany leaders, Governor George Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, abandoned a 33-year token tax on commuter income, renewed routinely every two to four years with bipartisan support. Bruno actually put out a press release all but announcing he was passing the bill to gain a momentary advantage for Republican candidate Tom Morahan in a May 25 Rockland County special senate election. Not since Giuliani endorsed Mario Cuomo in 1994 has the mayor made it clearer that the city's interests, at least on a big-picture issue like this, transcend his own.
The surprise was that our first suburban governor and the cowboy senator from Rensselaer were joined by the Lower East Side's Shelly Silver, 60 percent of whose Democratic majority in the assembly comes from the city. To neutralize the issue in the Rockland race and take it away from Republicans forever, the speaker made the stunning announcement last Wednesday that he would push the bill through his own chamber as soon as the senate passed it. The bill would initially eliminate the tax only for New York commuters, but a New Jersey lawsuit is expected to quickly kill it out of state as well.
What no one in the media noted was that Silver had hosted the regular meeting of his Democratic conference the same day and restricted the discussion to a weapons bill, never mentioning his own simultaneous evisceration of the party's long-standing support of the tax. The 98 Democratic members found out about Silver's tangled tactical tank job the same way we did by reading about it in the newspapers at home on Thursday. Locked out of the decision-making process, most city assembly Democrats nonetheless seemed poised to roll over and vote against their hometown this week anyway, joining salivating suburban and upstate legislators of both parties.
Silver said he did it for his 16 suburban members, some of whom, led by Westchester's Dick Brodsky, had actually joined the Democratic candidate for the Rockland seat, Ken Zebrowski, at a press conference calling for the repeal before Bruno said he'd sponsor the bill. That's the way the speaker has long made policy by letting the whims of the most marginal districts set the party's agenda, even though the Democrats' 46-vote majority is invulnerable, compared with the GOP's five-vote hold on the senate.
No doubt Silver's real motive was to help Senate Minority Leader Marty Connor gain the Rockland seat by trumping Bruno's commuter card. While Bruno and Silver already had a testy relationship unusual for the ordinary Albany byplay between legislative leaders of different parties, Silver's gambit for Connor signals an all-out war, smashing the "gentlemen's agreement" that has undergirded capital politics for decades. Since Silver and Connor's districts overlap, they have long been allied, and they are now making a play together that no prior speaker in modern memory has been willing to make for his senate counterpart.
In a Voice interview, Connor put the blame for a tax-cut bill even he wouldn't defend ideologically on the mayor who's leading the charge against it: "The speaker indicated to me that he called the mayor early, before Bruno issued his press release on the bill, and told Giuliani about it. He asked Giuliani to call Bruno to stop it. Giuliani said his lobbying office would be issuing a memo in opposition to the bill, but that he wasn't inclined to speak to Bruno. A memo isn't exactly Rudy Giuliani's bully pulpit."
Connor believes that Giuliani "was counting on a wink from Bruno," who is ironically the mayor's strongest statewide backer in the U.S. Senate sweepstakes for 2000. Giuliani was betting, just like Bruno, that Silver would be forced to kill the repeal and that Republicans would benefit in the Rockland primary. In fact, Giuliani may have interpreted the Silver call as a sign of how desperate he was for someone else to bail him out of a perilous dilemma. Once Silver pulled his Nixon-to-China surprise, however, the dilemma wound up in Rudy's hands.