Stupid Political Tricks Cost City $360 Million

What, do you suppose, is the most-expensive political campaign ever run in New York?

Ah, what memories such a question inspires! Remember the Charles Schumer-Alfonse D’Amato spendathon in 1998? What about the Mario Cuomo-George Pataki contest in 1994? How about the self-financed campaigns of Ronald Lauder and Lewis Lehrman, who spread millions around in their vain attempts to win the mayoralty in 1989 and the governorship in 1981, respectively. Nelson Rockefeller spent his own money on campaigns back in the days when a dollar was a dollar. And what about the ongoing spectacle featuring Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani? That one figures to break $50 million, to the delight of campaign consultants and television station owners.

All of these admirable supply-side efforts, however, seem like spare change when compared to a famous State Senate campaign in Rockland and Orange counties last year. The winner, as you no doubt recall, was Republican Thomas P. Morahan, and the campaign he ran surely was the costliest ever inflicted on the bedraggled citizens of New York. The bill comes in at $360 million, and unlike standard campaigns, this will be an annual charge. And the tab will be presented not to the twisted arms of campaign contributors, but to New York City taxpayers.

What’s that? You don’t recall the famous Rockland-Orange special election for State Senate in 1999? And you’ve never heard of the Honorable Thomas P. Morahan? Well, that’s unfortunate, because this city of crumbling school buildings, underpaid teachers and police officers, poorly maintained infrastructure, etc., will be paying for cheap politics in Rockland and Orange counties for years to come.

Last spring, in an obscure local election for an obscure position in the obscure state Senate, a stout-hearted tax-cutter, i.e., Mr. Morahan, decided to play demagogue on the issue of New York City’s miniscule commuter tax, which has been in effect since 1966. Oh, how he went on and on about its horrors and injustices, rarely pointing out that at .45 percent, it wasn’t exactly forcing Rockland County residents who worked in the city to choose between paying the mortgage or paying the city. (Several years ago, I spent a couple of hours in Grand Central Terminal interviewing commuters about the commuter tax. More than half didn’t even know they were paying a paltry $45 for every $10,000 they were earning.)

Mr. Morahan’s careful analysis of the subject inspired a brilliant response. The Democrats shouted “Me, too!” This clever tactic meant that the Republicans would not be the only demagogues in the campaign. By gum, a Democrat can pander as well as any Republican tax-hater!

For reasons that hardly need elaboration, it was decided that the true test of a genuine city-hating, tax-loathing demagogue is action, not words. So a bill to end the city’s commuter tax on in-state residents was hastily drawn up so that the Republican-led State Senate and the Republican Governor could express their enthusiasm and then point to the nasty Democratic-led Assembly, filled with all kinds of unsavory city politicos, as the fleecers of suburban purses.

Ah, but Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, guardian of the city’s interests in Albany, was too clever for these ham-handed Republicans. Nobody was going to make him into a defender of the poor, a champion of immigrants, a patron of patronage. No, sir: Mr. Silver announced that he, too, would support an end to the commuter tax. And so it was done. Commuters from Long Island and the counties north of the Bronx were relieved of the .45 percent charge, and the city lost an annual revenue stream of $210 million. Commuters from out of state, however, were still contributing a small amount to support the city. They, after all, could not vote in obscure state Senate races in the New York suburbs.

On April 4, New York’s Court of Appeals announced, not surprisingly, that out-of-state commuters were entitled to the same tax benefit, which meant that the city lost an additional $150 million a year. Splendid. Thanks to a cheap political stunt gone mad, the city lost $360 million a year to help make Thomas P. Morahan a State Senator.

Critics of campaign finance reform scream in horror at the very thought of setting aside public funds to pay for political campaigns. But, as any student of politics in this well-governed state knows, the public already pays for political campaigns. They do so unknowingly, by paying the public salaries of political operatives disguised as “policy experts” and by contributing to a state budget filled with gimmicks designed to make incumbents look invincible.

And now city residents will have to pay for a $360 million hole in the city budget created because a man in Rockland County wished to be called “Honorable.”