Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Mike Spiked: Money for Nothing

All that is left for the press is the final accounting. As the NY Times reports this morning, "Lawmakers on Monday shelved Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's plan to charge a fee to drivers entering the busiest parts of Manhattan, dealing a setback to the mayor as he tries to raise his national profile and promote his environmental initiatives."

How much did Mayor Mike and his minions spend-publicly and privately-in their quixotic quest to enact a congestion tax on New York commuters? When the final numbers come in, that is if the journalistic scent is properly followed, it will be clear for all to see that money, even large expenditures, isn't always sufficient if a shortage of political acumen-and a failure to connect with the people affected most by a policy- characterizes the effort.

And the effort did indeed lack political acumen, much like the mayor's heavy-handed efforts over the West Side stadium failed to convince Albany law makers. As Richard Brodsky told the NY Sun, the congestion tax was "Jets Stadium redux." On top of this we saw just how much the mayor's basic political inexperience served him poorly once again in the attempt to use political negotiation to achieve a key policy objective. His people were so busy trying to cajole electeds with pork that they failed to involve themselves early on in the needed back-and-forth horse trading that is the life blood of legislative activity.

Which is why the Daily News' Bill Hammond gets it all wrong in today's analysis piece on the collapse of the mayor's plan. Hammond tells his readers that Shelly Silver treated the mayor "like dirt," going on to observe that "Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan is the classiest act to hit Albany in years. The mayor and his staff did months of homework, developed a well-thought-out proposal, rallied broad community support and pitched their big idea to state lawmakers with all the passion and sincerity they could muster."

This evaluation really couldn't be farther from the truth. The fact is that the voluminous plan had large question marks-and the bill submitted to the legislature differed significantly from some publicly discussed aspects of the plan. The time frame did not give the legislature adequate time to properly vet the proposal, and the "broad community support" that Hammond talks about was, quite simply, a mirage. Never has a phonier AstroTurf effort been launched on behalf of any policy goal in New York State.

As poll after poll pointed out, the real life public-the folks that couldn't be rented for a few dollars-simply detested the plan; and hated the fact that they would be further taxed so that certain elitist elements could micromanage their lives. The real broad based community support was evidenced by the galvanizing done against the tax by Corey Bearak and the Queens Civic Congress, and Steve Barrison of the Small Business Congress.

In many ways the successful opposition campaign was reminiscent of the effort against the ill-fated megastore proposal launched with such fanfare by Rudy Giuliani some 14 years ago. In that campaign, just like the one here against the congestion tax, community and small business opposition rallied to support elected leaders so that an unwanted policy could be defeated.

There is, however, one key difference. In the case of congestion pricing, the community/small business effort took second billing to the yeoman-like effort of the Assembly Speaker and fellow law makers such as Brodsky and Lancman. It is in our view the legislature's finest hour; demonstrating that no amount of money and media clacking can intimidate elected officials who, exercising their checks and balances prerogatives, think a policy just lacks credibility.

And Hammond should keep in mind that, time and time again yesterday, the mayor's poor political instincts were on display. As Liz points out this morning, the mayor even managed to alienate Senate Democrats, the one constituency the was in his corner going into the last ditch effort. Clearly frustrated, the mayor asked the Senate Dems if they had bothered to read the proposal. As the Times highlighted, "Mr. Bloomberg told the senators that his administration had sent plenty of information about his plan in the mail, and it was not his fault that they had not read it." But clearly it was his fault.

As Senator Kevin Parker told the paper, "'If the mayor came in with one vote, he left with none...His posture was not ingratiating...He says he does not know politics, and he certainly bore that out by the way he behaved.'" Indeed, Bill Hammond needs to point the finger of blame, as the NY Sun does in its editorial this morning, more at the architect of this grand scheme than at the skeptics who would not be bamboozled.

So we are left with the idea of a study commission. As the NY Post points out, however, it is unclear whether this will be enough to entice the federal dollars that the mayor was championing. Keep in mind, though, that the feds were happy to stiff the city on homeland security money, so there was never any guarantees that the transit funds would be forthcoming.

The dust has yet to settle on all of this, and we don't know how the mayor is going to respond to this public woodshedding by the Speaker. Already Bruno is skeptical about the utility of a commission so we can't be sure that the mayor will buy the idea, even if its just to save face.
We will, however, be ready to offer sensible alternatives to relieve the problem of congestion in the city; but the solutions must be legitimately city wide, and the costs must be borne fairly.

All in all this has been a great lesson in democracy-and the ability of the folks, with the aid of their elected officials, to fight all of the wealth and power that went in to advancing an ill-conceived idea. The mayor's hubris was his ultimate undoing.