Shelly’s Gridlock

sheldon silver001 Shelly’s GridlockALBANY—Earlier this month, Michael Bloomberg and Eliot Spitzer emerged from the Governor’s midtown office with great fanfare and announced that they were ready, in principle, to support City Hall’s sweeping plan to reduce traffic and air pollution in New York, which includes a proposal to charge cars for entering midtown Manhattan.

Not that it mattered.

The real show, for those interested in divining the fate of the Mayor’s sweeping urban-sustainability PlaNYC, took place in Albany this week, where a stoop-shouldered, graying cipher of a man shuffled down the hallway in the state Capitol behind the Assembly Chamber, and slowly mumbled to a handful of reporters in a gravely voice, “We’re going to conference it,” and “We’re going to talk about it.”

Thus spoke Sheldon Silver, the 63-year-old Democratic State Assembly Speaker who led his party during the dark years under Republican Governor George Pataki and who has stubbornly refused to fade away now that, technically, there’s another Democrat in Albany that outranks him.

It has often seemed in the past few years that it is Mr. Silver who has the final say on anything significant that happens in New York—City or State. Answerable for his position only to a few thousand voters in his Lower East Side legislative district and the 108 Democratic Assembly members, Mr. Silver is defiantly impervious to all other public and political pressures.

Two years ago, after months of intense pleading from the Mayor, construction labor unions and the New York Jets, Mr. Silver inserted a shiv into the faintly beating heart of Mr. Bloomberg’s plan to attract the Olympics to New York City by vetoing a proposal to build a stadium on Manhattan’s West Side.

More recently, it was Mr. Spitzer who was on the receiving end of one of Mr. Silver’s clinical displays of willful inertia. Elected by a landslide after running on the naïvely energetic slogan “Day One, Everything Changes,” the Governor found his plans for capping education costs, closing hospitals and fighting the health-care unions over health-care spending mired in a swamp of studied indifference from Mr. Silver.

And now, with all eyes on Mr. Silver as he and his members mull the fate of another major city initiative, things have once again reverted to form.

“That’s the way Albany has worked—everything has to go through the Assembly Speaker,” said former Governor Mario Cuomo, who was in his third term in Albany when Mr. Silver became the Speaker.

“People thought he would be eclipsed when there was a Democratic Governor,” added former New York City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern. “But he’s more assertive than ever.”

The ability of the State Legislature to exercise influence over New York City in particular is the result of years and years of checks placed on the city’s perceived profligacy and corruption by an antagonistic state government.

“Part of it goes back to the desire for upstate to retain government accountability in the city. Back a century ago, the city was perceived as the center of corruption,” said Robert Ward, director of research at the Public Policy Institute of New York. “Anything other than property taxes, like income taxes, sales taxes, they have to be approved from the state.”

It’s also a remnant of the city’s fiscal crisis of 1975, when the city was bailed out by the state, but was forced to surrender discretion over many aspects of its finances, as well as the City University system, the transportation system and a good portion of its public workforce.

“The city lost 60,000 cops, teachers, clerks, union workers, its university, contracting for its bridges and tunnels—it gave up a boatload,” explained Bill Cunningham, a former advisor to Mr. Bloomberg and former aide to then-Governor Hugh Carey who is now managing director at Dan Klores Communications.

To pay off billions of dollars’ worth of bonds the state took out to keep the city afloat, the city agreed to give the state the first $500 million it earned from the city’s sales tax. Whatever the city raised after that, it could keep.