With mounting delays, aging equipment, a troubling ridership decrease, and fare hikes on the horizon, it would seem an especially bad time for the state to pull back funding for the MTA. But that is exactly what the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo is doing — to the tune of $65 million.
“Now is not the time for the state budget to drive its transit system and economic driver off the rails,” State Assemblywoman Nily Rozic told the Times Ledger last week.
But the governor’s office insists they’re increasing funding to the MTA’s budget, not cutting it.
“State operating aid to the MTA last year was $4.456 billion, and this year it’s $4.486 billion — an indisputable fact that shows a $30 million increase,” Jon Weinstein a spokesperson for Cuomo told the Voice. “By definition, an increase in aid is not a cut.”
What the hell is going on with the MTA’s budget? And why has $65 million of it suddenly gone missing when it’s needed most? The governor’s position is clever spin, but to understand it, we must first travel back in time…
Where does this exciting MTA drama begin?
All the way back in the halcyon days of 2011, when proud centrist Andrew Cuomo reached a tax deal with Republicans in the State Senate, exempting private schools, small businesses, and other groups from having to pay the payroll mobility tax, which put $320 million into the MTA’s pockets every year. (Initially that number was pegged at $250 million, but some last-minute negotiating led to that number increasing by $70 million, to $320 million.)
Instead, Cuomo promised, he would contribute that missing money to the MTA from the general fund.
“The State would compensate the MTA for the…lost revenue,” the governor’s office said in a press release announcing the deal.
Cuomo said his word was bond, and that was the end of that.
So what happened?
Well, in the intervening years, the governor hasn’t actually been very good at keeping his word about MTA funding. In committing to the state’s portion of the MTA’s five-year, $26 billion capital program, Cuomo promised more than $8.3 billion to the authority, except he didn’t really spell out where more than $1 billion of that money would come from. Instead he instructed the MTA to drain itself of existing funds, and then come to him for the money he owed them.
Preparing for that moment, he’s already authorized the MTA to continue borrowing money, adding to their already sky-high debt. Still, Cuomo allocated $1.5 billion in new appropriations for the MTA in his most recent budget, funding another chunk out of that $8.3 billion commitment. That’s encouraging!
But has the governor kept his word about making sure that the MTA got the $320 million for operating expenses it lost when the payroll mobility tax was eliminated?
He had, mostly. From FY 2013 through FY 2017, Cuomo annually reimbursed the MTA for almost as much as the full $320 million, give or take a few million. For 2013, he pledged $250 million (before later negotiations upped the need to $320 million). For 2014, he pledged $307 million; 2015, $309.2 million; 2016, another $309.2 million; 2017, $309 million.
Last month, for 2018, Cuomo pledged just $244 million.
But, according to the Cuomo administration, your eyes deceive you! That’s not actually a cut, but an increase in funding. You see, the governor says other tax revenues for the MTA were up this year (like gas taxes and other fees), meaning both dedicated and discretionary funds for the MTA coming from the state totaled $4.486 billion in ‘17-18, compared to the $4.456 billion from ‘16-17.
If funding is up overall, why should I complain?
Because that $320 million was something the governor had promised you, in lieu of a tax, which is not built on a promise, but on laws. In fact, if that tax had remained in place, the revenues would mostly likely have gone up in the intervening years (like the other tax-based funding for the MTA), meaning the MTA is not only missing out on $65 million, but however much more that tax would have brought it had it not been repealed.
$65 million might seem like a drop in the bucket in the context of an almost $4.5 billion budget, but with an agency that desperately needs to invest in track work, and salvage its failing bus services, that’s a pretty serious hit to the bottom line. (That money could also go towards providing half-priced MetroCards to low income New Yorkers.)
Is this fight over?
Not quite. Polly Trottenberg, the city’s Department of Transportation commissioner and an MTA board member has pledged to press the governor and state legislature to reinstate the $65 million, and said that she will be “working with our allies up in Albany to see if we can reverse these cuts, which we really have a great concern about.” At an MTA finance committee hearing, she also expressed dismay in the cutting of funding at a time when federal support could take a serious hit.
“I also think it particularly worries me in light of the federal fiscal climate we find ourselves in, in which there are all kinds to potential threats to city [and] state budgets right now — and in a bunch of ways we don’t even know yet,” Trottenberg said.
Over the next few months, we’ll find out if the Cuomo administration will stick with the cut as it irons out this year’s budget. In the meantime, tell yourself that the extra money you’ll pay for a subway ride is for all that extra time spent waiting for a train.