New York’s Liberal Subway War

Cuomo vs. de Blasio is a hoot but New Yorkers are paying the price.


New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio talks to reporters on the subway, July 23.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio talks to reporters on the subway, July 23. PHOTO: SETH WENIG/ASSOCIATED PRESS

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio famously hate each other, but they seem to agree that the victims of their feud should be the people of New York. Witness their brawl over who deserves the blame for the rapid decline of New York’s subways.

The city’s train service has deteriorated as years of misspent resources have led to only 61.7% of trains now reaching the station on time. Straphangers often cram onto filthy or overheated cars. And the commute is so unreliable for the 5.6 million weekday passengers that almost a third of those riders surveyed by the Comptroller’s office said they’ve been reprimanded or lost wages because of tardy trains, and 2% were fired. To drown commuters’ sorrows, Long Island’s Blue Point Brewery is even releasing a beer it calls “Delayed Pilsner.”

Gov. Cuomo is chiefly responsible for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) that runs the subway, as he appoints the chairman plus five of the 14 voting members of the 23-person board. (Mr. de Blasio appoints four voting members.) But Mr. Cuomo needs a political foil as he contemplates a run for the White House, and so he’s tried to throw Mr. de Blasio on the tracks by demanding that the mayor match state funding for urgent subway repairs. 

The mayor’s default response: Raise taxes. Though the mayor calls his proposal a “millionaire’s tax,” it would hit individuals who earn more than $500,000. These 32,000 tax filers would see their income-tax rate rise to 4.4% from 3.9%, bringing their combined city and state rate to 13.2%. Only California penalizes income more with a 13.3% top tax rate.

“It’s $7 a day—that’s a half hour of parking in a typical Midtown Manhattan garage,” Mr. de Blasio said of his plan Monday. “People who pay for expensive meals and parking aren’t going to miss $7 a day.”

In 2014, the last year on record, the top 1% of wage earners accounted for 49.3% of New York City’s income tax revenue. That’s a dangerously narrow tax base to fund an $85 billion budget. In 2014 New York state led the nation in outmigration of those making $200,000 or more a year. Those who remain are watching congressional calls to end the federal state-and-local tax deduction, which would hit New Yorkers hard.

Mr. de Blasio’s tax is supposed to pay for repairs, but the mayor plans to earmark $250 million annually—from a tax that would raise $700 million to $800 million—to pay for half-priced train fare for 800,000 low-income New Yorkers.

That’s no surprise, since the MTA has long operated as a patronage shop for liberal politicians. To organized labor’s delight, payroll for the subway has ballooned 26% under Mr. Cuomo’s tenure. Money for pension and health benefits has taken priority over money for repairs and technology upgrades.

The political backdrop is that Mr. de Blasio is running for re-election this year and has his own eye on a White House run. Albany will have to sign off on his tax increase, but Mr. Cuomo is up for re-election in 2018 and the subway woes have pulled down his approval ratings. Mr. Cuomo may face a primary challenge from, among others, actress Cynthia Nixon, a de Blasio ally whose wife works for his Department of Education.

Though Mr. Cuomo campaigned in 2010 against a tax increase enacted by his predecessor, he has repeatedly extended it. If he needs to raise taxes to fight off the left in a primary, rest assured his principles are pliable. There’s nothing like a progressive blood feud for entertainment, but the people who pay the price are the subway riders and taxpayers of New York.

Appeared in the August 10, 2017, print edition.

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