Don’t Print the Legend: The Real Story of the Commuter Tax Repeal

To complain about scandals in Albany is like griping about someone farting while you're walking through an open sewer. Acts of actual illegality are the exception rather than the rule, and are usually the function of laziness and inattentiveness to paperwork. Far more significant are the acts which are moral outrages, but perfectly legal. And, finally there is the press, too jaded or dumb or lazy to pay attention, and nearly always getting it wrong. The stupidity often festers until it becomes the conventional wisdom, so that even those who know better decide that it’s the west and you print the legend. The stupidest Albany legend is the one repeated by Ed Koch, time and again, while everyone nods their head at it’s sage wisdom: “Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver was responsible for killing the commuter tax in 1999, and he did so to help the Senate Democrats win a special election”. WRONG!!! 

            First of all, Shelly Silver was not Lee Harvey Oswald, he did not act alone. He was, however, a major player in a convoluted, but almost accidental conspiracy, which while reminiscent of the assassination plots in “JFK” and James Ellroy’s “American Tabloid”, has more resemblance to a game of chicken gone tragically wrong. The commuter tax fight is perhaps emblematic of Albany bi-partisanship at its worst. While bi-partisanship is nearly always hailed as a beautiful thing, in actual practice it is usually less reminiscent of the Kean Commission than it is of the New York City Board of Elections. 

To that extent that Silver was responsible for killing the commuter tax (a great deal) his actions were not aimed at helping the Senate Democrats. Never in the history of New York politics have the Assembly Democrats ever used their resources to help the Senate Dems win an election in a marginal seat. Shelly Silver is as interested in helping Democrats take the Senate as Osama Bin Laden is in selling Israel Bonds. Silver likes being the Dem’s top dog in the legislature and does not want to share the job. The real point of view of the Majority parties in their respective chambers to their partisan counterparts in the other chamber’s minority can be summed up by Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno’s public humiliation of fellow Republican, Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco, during the recent public budget negotiating session, when Tedisco had the brass to actually say a word. During his tenure, Shelly has actually worked to cut the power of the Senate Democrats on such perks as appointments to Temporary Commissions, even when Joe Bruno was fine with such things. Senate Republicans use the Assembly as the nest egg to grow their candidates for elevation to the Senate. The only time Shelly encourages members of his own party conference to go to the Senate is when they are troublesome rebels; and then he shows little concern whether they run as Democrats or Republicans (ask Joe Robach and Steve Kaufman).

If Shelly was interested in helping Senate Democrats, then Democratic Assembly staffers would have helped out in the 1999 Rockland Senate special election; they didn't. There wasn’t even any real help from the two Assembly Dems who represented the majority of the Senate District. The only Assembly Dem who did any thing at all was Westchester’s Richard Brodsky from across the Hudson River. Brodsky helped not because of Shelly, but in spite of him, because he thought Republican Benjamin Gilman might leave Congress and he wanted to establish a beachhead in Rockland to run for the seat.

The issue Brodsky helped on was the commuter tax. A little background. The tax was long a bone in the throat of suburbanites. In 1999,  Mayor Giuliani and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone aggravated them further by proposing to spend a $2 billion city surplus by enacting a tax break. Suburban legislators of both parties responded by complaining that, if NYC was so flush with cash that they couldn't think of any education, housing, transit or other needs to spend their money on, then perhaps it was time to end the commuter tax. Even the most liberal suburban Democrats figured they had voted voted to give NYC billions for education, police, transit, and other needs, and now saw the City tax cut as a reason to bring home a little pork of their own. Silver initially resisited the pressure from members of his conference.  

 Like any suburban candidate of either party, the Dem in the Rockland senate race, Ken Zebrowski, pledged to support the tax's abolition, and held a joint press conference with Brodsky, abolition's Assembly sponsor. The Republicans responded, quite accurately, by saying it was the Assembly, not the Senate, which was stopping abolition. Bruno scheduled a Senate vote to prove the point and thereby help his candidate. This put tremendous pressure on the Assembly's marginal suburban Democratic members, especially those from Rockland, who started begging Shelly to abolish the tax. Shelly is very sensitive to threatened marginals, and even more sensitive to any possibility of in-house revolt. He thought he had both on his hands, and let it be known he was inclined to repeal the tax.

Mayor Giuliani called Shelly up and asked him not to do it. Shelly responded that, if the Mayor wanted the bill stopped he should get Bruno to pull it; but that if the Senate passed it, the Assembly would pass it too. He suggested that Bruno, who was then a big supporter of Rudy's Senate bid, would respond to Rudy. Rudy said he'd already sent Bruno a memo of opposition. Rudy, a bully with the powerless, then deployed the modicum amount of courage he usually displayed when dealing with the powerful; he sat on his hands and did nothing.

The Senate brought the bill up to a vote. Bruno let all the City Republicans off the hook and allowed them to vote against it, even Guy Vellella, who represented a portion of Westchester, and was actually a co-sponsor of the repeal bill. However, Bruno knew he could do this because all he needed for passage was the vote of one Democrat and he had the sure votes of two, Westchester's Suzi Oppenheimer, who, like all suburban legislators of both parties, always supported repeal, and Albany's Neil Breslin, who had a couple of hundred constituents who commuted to the City to work. With those votes, the bill was passing.

The Senate's Democratic leadership sat around like not-so-innocent bystanders. The bill was passing, and therefore would neutralize any use of the issue against the Republicans in Rockland. However, a vote against it by them could be used against their candidate, so to provide Zebrowski with some cover, David Paterson, Marty Connor and a few others gritted their teeth, and took one for the team, adding a few superfluous votes to the bill’s majority. It didn’t really matter at that point, and a vote the other way would have been just as superfluous. As it stands, those votes probably stand among the few acts in this sorry tail which actually involved some guts and integrity, perverse though it was; certainly more guts and integrity than that displayed by Rudy, whose own show of courage might have been far more consequential.

Shelly then added insult to injury by passing the Senate bill without changes, even though certain changes could have cushioned the impact on the City's budget, and would probably been acceptable to Bruno. Hell, why risk helping the City when your marginals might get some flack? Rudy held his tongue until the bill was safely passed, and only then attacked Silver, barely mentioning Bruno. A real profile in courage, once again proving that he may have been America’s mayor, but when push come to shove, he wasn't New York’s.

Silver's passage of the bill did nothing for Zebrowski; if anything it helped the Republicans, although that wasn't the aim either. The aim was to help suburban Assembly Democrats like Brodsky, Colman, Gromack, Dinapoli, etc, thereby helping Shelly retain power. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats like Paterson and Connor were condemned as if they willingly abandoned the City for their own benefit. This is sort of like blaming the hapless victim for being raped. And, even if it’s true that they went out braless in a low cut blouse, with a micro-skirt and no panties, and got dead drunk while spending the evening prick-teasing the lacrosse team, in the end they only said yes to stop being pistol whipped.

So stop believing the hype! There really are lessons to be learned from the repeal of the commuter tax, but you’ll never hear those lessons mentioned on New York One.

(thanks to Bubba for providing some context)


As I noted on Politicker back in March, Bloomberg is doing a similar kabuki on school aid. He talks loud in public, but is already selling out on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity money. While Bloomberg’s threats to Senate Republicans are not without their appealing aspects (and are an exponential improvement over Giuliani’s tactics), Silver has a right to be dubious concerning the Mayor's actual commitment to the issue, given Bloomberg’s past unwillingness to go to the mat with Bruno and Pataki. In fact, Bloomberg's tease to the Senate Republicans seems increasingly like the foreplay before the city gets screwed.

FOLLOW UP FOLLOW UP: Silver appears to have been correct.