Department of Total Reinvention: One House Legislature for New York State

If you like to think big, read Richard Emery’s opinion piece in today’s Daily News. Emery is the lawyer who won the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case that resulted in the abolition of New York City’s Board of Estimates. He writes:

Ascent to leadership in a reformed unicameral body would require openness and respect for members that simply does not now exist.

It is not as if there is no precedent for creating a one-house legislature here in New York. Though only one state — Nebraska — is unicameral, virtually all localities, counties and cities in New York have unicameral bodies.

In 1989, I won a case in the U.S. Supreme Court that resulted in the abolition of the New York City Board of Estimate. It was clear then that the best reform for the city was to give lawmaking powers to a responsive, unicameral City Council.

Notwithstanding the views of a cadre of nostalgic fixers, there is no question that this has transformed city government from a system of graft among county leaders that controlled the votes of borough presidents into a transparent, responsive, largely progressive, publicly financed, representative democracy.

Emery is right that a unicameral legislature would be a huge and effective reform. Unfortunately, his opinion piece is sure to add to ammunition to the elected officials who oppose a constitutional convention precisely because it might result in giant changes, including changes that cost them their jobs.

NYS Assembly Drops Ball on Subway Service Oversight

City Council Announces August 8 Hearing on Subway Meltdown
Assembly Has Done No Hearings, None Planned.

 

The Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA) is a state authority that runs subway and bus service in New York City. As a state authority, the MTA is subject to oversight by the state legislature. However, the State Assembly, which is controlled by representatives from New York City, has done zero subway oversight hearings in the last two years, and has none planned, despite the worst meltdown in subway service in decades.

Today, the NYC City Council announced it was holding a hearing on subway service on August 8. Unfortunately, the State Assembly has a culture of conducting very few oversight hearings, and has conducted no oversight hearings on subway service in the last three years, probably longer. Public policy experts view oversight hearings as important tools for holding state authorities accountable to the public.

The Assembly’s failure to hold the MTA to accountable for gigantic subway service problems is baffling given that both Speaker Carl Heastie Authorities Committee Chair Jeffrey Dinowitz are from the Bronx, and their constituents are suffering from the disintegration of subway service.

Reinvent Albany looked at Assembly records dating to 2014 and found zero oversight hearings on the MTA or MTA subway or bus service. In  May 11, 2017, the Assembly looked at the impact of Amtrak emergency construction at Penn Station on LIRR commuters.

Testimony: MTA Board Owns Bridges and Tunnels, Must Approve NY Crossing Costs Like Decorative Towers and Harbor Lights

A Governor, a Piggy Bank and a Toy Store: Who is Paying $350m for MTA Bridge and Tunnel Decorations in the Middle of a Subway Meltdown

Under the law, the MTA and the NY Power Authority are governed by independent boards whose directors are obligated to act in the “public interest” and have to approve major agency expenditures, contracts and capital expenses. But a story in today’s Politico, and background research by Reinvent Albany, suggests that without the approval of the MTA Board, the governor has directed the installation of decorative colored lights and art decor towers on MTA Bridges and Tunnels that will cost between $350m and $500m. 

According to public documents the MTA board has never seen a full project budget for Harbor Lights and has not voted on the project. According to Politico, the governor’s office says the New York Power Authority (NYPA) will pay for the project — not the MTA. Yet, according to board minutes from March and January of this year, the NYPA board was told that the MTA would repay NYPA for the costs of the project. (See below.) In other words, NYPA’s board assented to paying for Harbor Lights based on the false promise of repayment. (We say “assented” because it is not completely clear that NYPA’s board actually voted for the expenditure, though they were briefed on it.) Additionally, the NYPA board was told Harbor Lights are a “lighting project to relight the bridges that the MTA controls in New York City” and “improvements to bridges and tunnels… ” involving the “addition of energy efficient LED lighting.”

To recap, the MTA board has never voted to approve Harbor Lights or seen a presentation on how much it will cost, yet the lights are slated to be installed on the MTA Bridges and Tunnels they are legally responsible for. The NYPA board “assented” to spending $216m on Harbor Lights based on the false promise of MTA repayment. Something is wrong here.

Anyone concerned about government accountability should be dismayed that the governor can act like a king with the Power Authority as his piggy bank and the MTA as his toy store.

Sources

Power Authority January 2017 Board Meeting
MTA bridge lighting project to relight the bridges that the MTA controls in New York City over the five boroughs. In response to a question from Vice Chairman Nicandri, President Quiniones said that this project would save the MTA money compared to using non-LED technology. If the MTA installed standard lighting rather than high-efficiency LED lighting on the bridges, it would be much more expensive than NYPA’s relighting project. In response to a question from Trustee McKibben, Ms. Anderson said the Authority is the overall Project Manager for the lighting project. NYPA will contract vendors to perform the actual installation. In response to a question from Vice Chairman Nicandri, President Quiniones said that the MTA will be paying the Authority for this service through a fifteen-year financial agreement.

Page 81 https://www.nypa.gov/-/media/nypa/documents/document-library/meeting-minutes/01-31-17-trusteesminutes.pdf

Power Authority March  2017
Bridge Lighting It is anticipated that the Authority, through its Customer Energy Solutions program, will be responsible for implementing a plan to make improvements to bridges and tunnels in the New York City metropolitan region including the addition of energy efficient LED lighting in conjunction with the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (“TBTA”), with costs, which are currently expected to be approximately $216 million, to be paid by or recovered from TBTA.

Page 167  https://www.nypa.gov/-/media/nypa/documents/document-library/meeting-minutes/2017-03-21nypaminutes.pdf

 

 

 

 

Governor Cuomo’s MTA “Disaster” Declaration Suspends Anti-Corruption and Environmental Safeguards

See annotated executive order here: