ALBANY—Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith emerged from a three-hour closed-door conference with the last two members of his conference holding up an M.T.A. bailout bill and announced that they had reached an agreement with each other about what the legislation should contain. Now it's question of whether the Senate Democrats can get the governor and the Assembly to go along with what they pass.
"The governor proposed language that said he would reimburse the school districts," Smith said. "We heard that language, and we want to talk to him and be clear about exactly what reimbursement means, and specifically want to make sure we're comfortable with the fact that these school districts will be held harmless and it won't fluctuate based on circumstances, and that's why the language will be very important."
State Senators Brian Foley and Craig Johnson both said they would sign on to a "hold harmless" proposal. With their support, and assuming the rest of the conference decides to go along with the refashioned legislation, the bill would have the requisite 32 votes to pass in the Senate.
"We need to make sure, notwithstanding some press releases that came out of the governor's office, we need to be comfortable with what language is coming forward," Johnson said. "I'm confident that with the language that Malcolm and I talked about, with Senator Foley and Senator Klein, that the residents and the school districts are going to be protected appropriately when it comes to the payroll tax issue."
Foley also said that with a forensic audit of the M.T.A., he hoped more money could be found to help reimburse non-profit groups and municipalities in the district.
This latest proposal would also halve the proposed surcharge on taxis in the 12-county M.T.A. service region–a feature of the most recent version of the Senate's bailout legislation–eliminating $95 million that would have gone to roads and bridges in areas upstate and on Long Island.
There's not an exact figure, but if you take the original $1.76 billion Smith said his bill would generate and subtract the $60 million Paterson says it will take to reimburse school districts for an increased payroll tax (or, as the new version would have it, holding them harmless) you come up with $1.7 billion.
It's not clear how much of this amount will be used to fund a capital plan, but Paterson doesn't seem too focused on that.
Speaking to reporters tonight about Paterson's sudden willingness to accept something less than a comprehensive bailout bill, Smith noted that "things came full circle." Smith also said he was "proud" of Foley and Johnson for being obstinate.
"They fought for what they believed, and I think it is a tribute to them and a tribute to this Democratic conference," he said. "This is the way our democracy is supposed to work."
There's no immediate word from Paterson or Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on the Senate's stance, but both have said they will settle for whatever Smith can pass.
UPDATE: Don't think this is a real solution, says Gene Russianoff:
NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign9 Murray Street-New York, New York 10007- (917) 575-9434STATEMENT ON MTA BAILOUT BILLMonday, May 4, 2009
Like millions of subway, bus and commuter rail riders, the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign greatly appreciate the billion-dollars-plus in new funds that the legislature says it will be providing to hold down transit fares and restore service. The Governor's and legislator's actions will come as relief to many riders already reeling from the harsh economic climate.The Straphangers Campaign is, however, disappointed that the proposed MTA bailout bill does not deal fully with the transit system's critical capital needs, with the bill providing what the Senate calls a "down payment" on rebuilding funds.Both transit operating and capital needs are closely related. The fare is how much you pay, service is what you get and capital improvements determine the quality of the ride, such as whether you are riding on a delay-plagued 42-year-old car or are at the mercy of a creaky 80 year-old signals.Earlier this year, Governor Paterson rejected a proposal by the New York State Senate to fund only transit's operating needs. Now he says that all of transit capital needs will be addressed separately in the fall, and at the same time as roads and bridges capital needs. We will redouble our efforts to make that happen.No legislator should be under the impression that the MTA has been "dealt with." The agency's – and the riding public's – need for money to rebuild our aging transit system appears to remain.