Friday, July 20, 2007

"DEAL," or NO "DEAL?"

It is one of the most fascinating scenarios we've ever seen in thirty years of public policy watching and lobbying. The Albany leadership has concocted a complex deal-including congestion relief- that is being characterized by some in Albany as "The Big Ugly." Here's the Capitol Confidential description: "That's typically the way to describe a large, sausage-like piece of legislation that includes a lot of amendments, add-ons, or side deals."

What remains to be seen is whether the deal holds or, to paraphrase Karl Marx, whether the synthesis achieves composite error. There a lot that can go wrong between now and any final resolution of what will happen to the mayor's traffic tax, and what we're seeing now is a whole bunch of folks reading into the situation what they'd like to believe is true. This is definitely not the "No Spin Zone."

To give a better idea of the confusion we only need to look as far as the reactions of the city's two major tabloids-in both their news coverage and their editorials. The NY Daily News hails the Albany agreement in a "They Bust Gridlock" editorial. In the piece the editors praise the "courage" of the leaders and says, "The deal shifted the debate from whether the city will impose fees for Manhattan motoring to how the charges will be implemented..." In similar fashion, the news coverage leads with a "Green Light, Mike" headline followed by a "Mayor can start congestion plan, but state gets final say on toll."

Things look radically different over at the NY Post, a paper that has also editorially backed the mayors plan, although with far less enthusiasm than the DN. The Post's editorial head, "A Definite 'Maybe'," indicates the extent to which the paper sees the Albany deal in much less a sanguine fashion. The money quote" "Certainly, no one has unplugged the life-support machine that's kept Mayor Mike's traffic relief plan barely alive."

The Post sees the deal as a cover for the leaders to achieve some of their own ends, while giving the mayor some degree of face-saving. It also sees Silver's fingerprints on the deal smudging any degree of false optimism; "Sure enough, the plan did not even come to a vote in either house of the Legislature. Rather, Silver proposed an arrangement imposing new hurdles."

In its news coverage of the deal, the Post puts "deal" in quotations and goes on to relate, "But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose members are strongly opposed to the mayor's plan, said that while some kind of congestion plan was inevitable, it's possible it won't include congestion pricing. Said one ranking legislative source: 'This is a face-saver for the mayor and I wouldn't bet on the likelihood that his plan will be approved in the end." The Post's Fred Dicker, speaking on WABC radio this morning was even more direct; "'The mayor got rolled,'" he told the Curtis and Kuby listeners.

This degree of skepticism is echoed in this morning's Observer report that sees the mayor as "bullish" on the deal, while observing that speaker Silver remains "sluggish," pointing out that, "Technically, lawmakers only agreed to keep studying the issue..." As Liz highlights; "The speaker didn't leave the impression that congestion pricing is a done deal."

And over at the NY Times, the paper simply buries the entire congestion issue with a full length coverage of the campaign finance reform part of yesterday's deal. When it gets around to discussing the issue it reports, "The compromise also tied up other issues, in classic Albany style. It would set up a commission to study Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's plan for 'congestion pricing' and alternatives that are intended to ease New York City traffic, but it put off action on any measures until March..." Not really a "let's break out the champagne" proclamation.

So what we have is a complicated process where it looks as if the mayor's plan will be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. One of the provisos that the mayor did get included was that any alternate plan would have to reduce congestion at least as much as the mayor's own tax proposal. What is missing here, is the fact that the Mayor's own estimates have never been independently vetted; and we believe that such a process will greatly undermine the overly optimistic projections that form the foundation of his tax scheme.

All of which seems to mean that there will be considerable action on both sides of this issue in the months ahead; and that opponents will now get what they have been asking for all along-a real review process that will challenge the mayor's facile environmental assumptions. It is also now incumbent on the City Council to really exercise its oversight responsibilities-and it must insist that the mayor's plan go through a full environmental impact review, one done by independent experts and not the mayor's trained seals.