Test of a Leader: Restoring a Tax

The city is in the midst of its second fiscal crisis since the Big One of the mid-1970’s, leaving Mayor Michael Bloomberg so hard-pressed for cash (we speak here of the public Bloomberg) that he’s prepared to disband eight fire companies to save a piddling $10 million a year.

Imagine how grateful Mr. Bloomberg would be for an annual gift of $500 million or so. Even a billionaire wouldn’t scoff at such a sum. That money could be on its way to New York if the Governor and the Legislature decided to correct one of the dopiest political mistakes of the 20th century-i.e., the abolition of the hardly noticed commuter tax.

Restoration of the 0.45 percent tax on people like me would not make Mr. Bloomberg’s budget problems go away, but it certainly would help. But because it would require an extraordinary act of courage on the part of numerous politicians, it won’t happen. And the Mayor apparently is not the confrontational type-at least on this issue-so the subject won’t even be discussed.

It’s too bad, because Mr. Bloomberg has shown some pretty good instincts so far, and the guess here is that a good, righteous campaign to demand from commuters the smallest bit of sacrifice would go over well with city residents, and might even shame the city’s Democratic Assembly members into passing the necessary legislation. It would die in the State Senate, or on the Governor’s desk, but at least a statement would have been made: Commuters ought to pick up a small share of the city’s tax burden, given that they use city services for at least eight hours a day, five to six days a week.

While few would attach the word “feisty” to Mr. Bloomberg-and that’s the quality required to launch an effective public crusade-the Mayor displayed a pretty good sense of moral outrage when two Council members accused him of racism. The Mayor’s people aren’t exactly in a hurry to return the Council members’ telephone calls, and that’s exactly as it should be. Words count for something, and when hacks start tossing the R-word around, they should be called to account.

Accountability and punishment should also be in order for all those time-serving Assembly Democrats who meekly went along with Speaker Sheldon Silver’s cynical, politically driven plot to remove the commuter tax as a suburban Republican campaign issue. He accomplished this by going along with abolition of the commuter tax in 1999, with the full cooperation of the Senate Republicans and Governor George Pataki. Hey, that Shelly Silver really showed ‘em, didn’t he? What a master politician! Too bad about those hundreds of millions of dollars the city loses every year.

The other day, Democratic gubernatorial aspirant Andrew Cuomo, in what no doubt was a carefully planned spontaneous outburst, accused Mr. Pataki of not being a leader. Hearing about this from a friend without gainful employment (and thus prone to paying attention to planned spontaneous outbursts), I thought for a moment that Mr. Cuomo might be referring to the commuter tax. Imagine my surprise-and that of the Western world, or at least that portion of it which cares about New York gubernatorial campaign pronouncements-when it turned out that Mr. Cuomo was referring to Sept. 11 and its aftermath.

Mr. Cuomo apparently thinks that the measure of leadership is standing in front of television cameras and offering words of encouragement-which, in essence, is what Mr. Giuliani did, and did very well, in the days following the attacks. Mr. Giuliani was, you will no doubt recall, the Mayor of the besieged city, and therefore had some claim to being its leading spokesman.

Mr. Cuomo’s position is that the Governor should have shoved the Mayor aside and gotten himself on television as much as possible. It’s not hard to imagine Mr. Cuomo doing such a thing, but there is a school of thought which has it that Mr. Pataki handled himself with a quiet strength of character. He didn’t have to be seen on television, and didn’t need the media’s accolades. Some people are comfortable with themselves; others only wish they were.

Of course, another way of measuring leadership is a willingness to speak unpleasant truths, and to confront and then shape public opinion. A true leader would admit that abolishing the commuter tax was a grave political mistake, and would go to Long Island and Westchester and Orange counties and say, “The city that offers you opportunities like no other needs your help. It needs the couple of hundred dollars you used to pay to support the police and firefighters who protect you in your offices and in the streets. It needs your generosity of spirit.”

That’s what a leader would do. But no candidate for Governor this year will say that-even one who claims to stand against the tired old politics of the past.