Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Getting Testy

As the NY Sun reports this morning, the congestion tax commission will provide council speaker Chris Quinn with a severe political test. As the paper says, Quinn came on board the Bloomberg band wagon, "before the deal that puts the council on the hook was negotiated." Now it will be up to her to deliver, an effort that has both potential political costs as well as benefits.

With a dedicated cadre of opponents on the council, many of whom occupy key leadership positions, Quinn will have to adopt a strategy that acknowledges the concerns of opponent, while at the same time cultivating the necessary votes to pass the required home rule message. Councilman Weprin, a confirmed congestion tax opponent, told the Sun that he didn't think the speaker would "use her pulpit to influence members."

We're not as sanguine as our friend David on this point. The speaker will need to use all of her resources because, as Professor Cohen of Columbia told the Sun she needs, "to show she has the leadership ability to be mayor..." With her political prestige on the line, she'll have no choice but to go full bore on this issue-and make no mistake she will be a formidable presence in the upcoming months.

That being said, her stalwart support for the mayor carries certain risks. The bottom line reality in this fight is that, in spite of all the money that has been spent to sell the tax plan, most New Yorkers abhor the idea. The bulk of the opposition resides in the communities that the speaker will have to woo if she's going to have a chance to actually win a Democratic primary. In addition, let's not forget that potential mayoral foe, Anthony Weiner, has come out strongly against the mayor's plan. Therefore, Quinn, just like many of her council colleagues looking to move on politically, does not have an easy road ahead.

So as "Take 3" of the congestion tax bill gets introduced in Albany on Thursday, there is much uncertainty on both sides of the controversy; and things are not as rosy as Crain's New York Business believes in its editorial this week. There are simply too many variables in play for any one to get carried away with bold prognostications.

And the one thing that has been missing in all of this is the actual examination of the mayor's plan. Remember, every time the mayor has been asked to explain aspects of the plan he has gotten rather testy-acting as if PlaNYC 2030 was the Ten Commandments. It isn't, and some of the plan's assumptions are likely not to survive the disinfecting action of sunlight. In addition, many of the claims of supporters are contradictory and may well be exposed in the debate.

Still, the Mike Bloomberg shouldn't be counted out in all of this, particularly because of two factors: (1) His willingness to spend lavishly-and to use public resources as an additional enticement; and, (2) The absolute abdication by the editorial boards of the city of their oversight role. Quite simply, they-with relatively few exceptions- have become embarrassing toadies of the mayor.

Why has the cry for an accounting of all of the mayor's spending gotten stuck in so many editorial throats? After all, a number of these folks never shut up about the pernicious influence of money in politics. What makes this situation different? Many of those with the current lockjaw fever would no doubt argue that all of this spending is OK because it is in the "public's interest."

But who defines this public good, and what separates this policy from any a special interest? Please look closely here. This is Mike Bloomberg looking to impose a tax on many middle class New Yorkers who are already, by all measures, very heavily taxed. He claims that he is doing this because of some notion of environmental betterment.

Perhaps he thinks he is, but there's an alternative explanation. Mike Bloomberg, a mayor who has done more than any other mayor in recent memory to increase carbon emissions in this city, has decided that he needs to use the popular concern with the environment as a platform for his national ambitions.

He is unconcerned with the potential fiscal impact his tax plan may have on thousands of New Yorkers, precisely because his major interest in all of this is the promotion of one Michael R. Bloomberg-the very definition of a special interest, since there are few New Yorkers, when looking at an additional $2,000 tax bill, who give two snits whether Mayor Mike runs for national office.

So, in the final analysis what we have is lavish spending on behalf of a special interest and, like all such interests, it is falsely couched in public interest terms. You'd think that all of our righteous editorial voices of indignation would get that; but they don't-not because they're in the mayor's pocket-but because they are fully embedded in the fabric of his well-tailored suit.