Senate Democrats Everywhere and Nowhere on the M.T.A. Bailout

ALBANY—Between licks on a lollipop, State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. told me he remains opposed to tolls, and floated something new to plug the M.T.A.’s deficit: a reinstatement of the commuter tax.

“Let’s bring it back,” Diaz said. “I’ve been telling everybody that wants to listen. People that live outside of the city, and take jobs away from us and then go upstate – they should be paying.”

There you have it, folks: proof that there is no direction among the Senate Democrats on this issue as opposition expands beyond the big sticking point – tolls. Diaz now wants a commuter tax. State Senator Craig Johnson said the M.T.A. should explore selling land in Brooklyn and elsewhere in New York City. State Senator Antoine Thompson said he wanted to see money for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. State Senator Brian Foley said he doesn’t like the current incarnation of the payroll tax being bandied.

“We’re still talking about it,” State Senator John Sampson told me after many of his colleagues had left for the night.

Majority Leader Malcolm Smith said Monday morning he was working on a “comprehensive” plan to bring to members. Sampson said “we’re developing new segments, but the core principals of the Ravitch Plan are there.”

In the State Assembly, several members were privately laughing at their Senate colleagues. They have “no idea,” one Democrat told me. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has come out in front of a plan that would place $2 tolls on bridges over the East and Harlem rivers as well as place a regional payroll tax, but that plan does not have the votes to pass the Senate. Nor does Ravitch’s proposal for higher tolls on East River bridges and the regional payroll tax.

“I am not on board,” Johnson told me before ducking into today’s session. “My problem with the payroll tax is it takes into account and will assert the payroll tax against school districts, municipalities and not-for-profits—three groupings that can least afford to pay additional taxes, particularly schools. If you’re going to add payroll tax, where are they going to get the money to pay for it? Out of raising property taxes or cutting educational services.”

The other Long Island Democrat in the chamber, Brian Foley, told me quickly before ducking back into a meeting that “as currently proposed, I’m opposed to the payroll tax.”

“We would certainly have our mind open to a lot of things if the payroll tax was reformed,” Johnson explained. “The problem is, no one has come to me and said, ‘Senator, I want to sit down and talk to you about it.’ Not a single person from the M.T.A. has reached out to say, ‘Senator, what can we do to alleviate your concerns.’ “

Meanwhile, State Senator Kevin Parker has jumped on the anti-toll bandwagon, joining the old Gang of Three that includes Diaz as well as State Senators Carl Kruger and Pedro Espada Jr.

“You want to encourage mass transit, so you want to increase the availability of it,” Parker said. “That being said, I’ve been quoted in a newspaper being against tolls and I think the payroll tax is bad as well, so I’m working with leadership here in the Senate to look at some other alternatives as to how we fund this thing.”

Action is required by March 25 before the M.T.A. enacts a doomsday budget. David Paterson and Malcolm Smith are confident an agreement can be reached.

Senate Democrats Everywhere and Nowhere on the M.T.A. Bailout