Nassau County politicians are lining up to take their swipes at the proposed commuter tax offered by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Although the tax faces strong and loud opposition, some observers feel a version of the tax may pass yet.
Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli, whose district includes most of the Roslyn area, opposes the commuter tax. "I have always been philosophically opposed to it," said DiNapoli. Still, he added, "the reality is that the city has some severe problems. It is in all our interests to figure out how to help."
DiNapoli said assemblymembers from New York City will push hard for the tax increase. "I've been around long enough to know that what's dead one day is alive the next," he said, implying that no politician can yet say the commuter tax idea is dead in the water.
DiNapoli also noted that New York City politicians assisted Nassau County when the county was going through its financial difficulties. And "given 9/11," the assemblyman said, the county should help a city still reeling financially from the terrorist attacks.
State Senator Michael Balboni represents many of the same villages in the Roslyn area that Assemblyman DiNapoli does. His opposition to the commuter tax is based mainly on the lack of creative thinking that the proposal represents. If a commuter tax were temporary, if it were for less money, and it if were to pay for fire services and "commuter safety" then the senator would reconsider his opposition.
However, the tax, the senator said, would be used to fill holes in New York City's budget deficit. As such, the Bloomberg administration has failed to make the case for the tax. Balboni noted that both New York State and Nassau County also face budget deficits. He also said the Bloomberg administration should have tried more innovative thinking in closing the city's budget gap before resorting to the commuter tax idea. Still, the senator, echoing Tom DiNapoli, said that the events of September 2001 changed his own perspective on the entire metropolitan region and that whatever happens, politicians need to be sensitive to the fact that Nassau County's destiny is linked to the city's.
Mike Barry, a columnist for The Port Washington News, is not an elected official, just a keen observer of New York politics. In a recent column, he recalled that there is nothing out of the ordinary with a commuter tax. Such a tax was imposed in both 1966 and 1973, when New York City was suffering acute budget problems.
He too, thinks another commuter tax can pass next year's assembly. "In all likelihood, there will be a reinstatement of the previous commuter tax," he predicted. In 1999, the assembly rescinded the 0.45 percent tax on wages first imposed in 1973. Barry believes that rescinded tax will be reinstated.
Although George Pataki easily carried Nassau and Suffolk counties in the past gubernatorial campaign, both the governor and Joseph Bruno, the senate majority leader, are Republicans. As is Mayor Bloomberg. Barry believes both Pataki and Bruno will "throw a bone to a GOP mayor in his time of need."
Furthermore, Barry thinks there are enough senators in the Republican-dominated upper chamber who can make such a "tough vote" and get away with it. The Democratic party controls the state assembly.
Local opposition to the commuter tax includes East Hills Mayor Michael R. Koblenz.
"Nassau County taxpayers currently face record tax purchases at the county level," the mayor wrote in a recent letter sent to Gov. Pataki. "This is no time to balance the city budget on the backs of our residents. The new tax would be draconian, egregious and unfair. We call on you to reject the concept and send a clear message to New York City that they have to deal with their own fiscal problems without finding a quick fix by imposing double taxation on our residents."
Comments by Assemblyman Tom Alfano, who represents villages in the Town of North Hempstead, are typical of the opposition. "The commuter tax has about as much chance of getting reinstated as the Dodgers coming back to Brooklyn," the assemblyman declared, "Reinstating the commuter tax is something I won't support because it's repressive and penalizes the people who need the income the most."
In the same vein was the reaction to the proposed tax by Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi. He said that with the commuter tax, Mayor Bloomberg is telling the suburbs to "drop dead."
Suozzi also said he couldn't imagine why the state legislature would support it. "This is one trial balloon that will pop immediately and for good reason," the county executive said. "Every municipality in New York is feeling the same economic hurt and we should be working together to find a global solution to our common problems, but this does not include asking our neighbors to shoulder the bulk of our own burdens. Nassau's budget deficit is Nassau's. I wouldn't ask the thousands of workers who commute here from New York City and Suffolk County to pick up our check."
But as with Tom DiNapoli and Michael Balboni, Suozzi called for cooperation among the counties and the cities in addressing fiscal problems.
"The way New York's counties and cities can help each other is by coming together and moving forward to address issues that are affecting us all," he said. "One problem that will be remedied only with universal cooperation is getting the state to reduce unfunded mandates and assume Medicaid costs. If accepting a dramatically reduced commuter income tax would help persuade the state to assume the costs of unfunded mandates then I am willing to do our part and lead the way toward a cooperative and multi-municipal solution for New York."