Westchester County has three NYS senate seats, all currently held by Democrats, up for grabs: the 35th, 37th and 40th district seats. As noted by Brian Nickerson, Dean of Iona College’s Arts and Science, which has recently started election polling in Westchester: “When you consider that Democrats currently maintain a slim majority in the State Senate, voters in these Westchester races could well become the state’s political ‘game changers.’”
Poll results indicate a closely-contested race in the 35th between the incumbent Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) and Liam McLaughlin (R). At a recent debate in Rye Brook, sponsored by the Westchester County Association and shown live on RNN-TV, the opening question dealt with the MTA tax and its impact on businesses, in the county that has the highest taxes in the nation:
Moderator, Caryn McBride, Westchester County Business Journal:
Senator Stewart-Cousins, when you voted for the MTA Tax, which amounts to 34 cents on every $100 of payroll for companies in the 12 counties that are served by the MTA, did you not perceive this as an anti-business tax?
My colleagues had been in the majority all of two months before we were statutorily required to do something to save the transit system. You talk about the economy of Westchester, clearly mass transit is a very, very important part of it. When we walked in the door, there was a mismanaged, unmanaged, lack of transparency; there was at times 2 books. There was nothing that was accountable in the transit authority. We were looking at stopping services substantially, about 50%, raising fares, and the realities were that we had 2 months to solve this very, very difficult problem. We didn’t just look at the impact, obviously, what we looked at was to change what we had. What we had was literally a wreck. And so, in our package of legislation not only did we bail it out, but we made sure that it is now transparent, that there is forensic auditing that goes on, that there is accountability. So we changed the culture of a system, frankly, that had gone off the rails a long time ago. I am as outraged and upset as everyone that it had been in that condition and the legislation that we passed when we bailed them out created an opportunity for us to get a handle on it.
I fight with my Hudson Valley delegation to withdraw the taxes. We understand that it is a difficult tax. The options were: close down half of the abilities for the trains to run or make fares so that nobody could get to the businesses. Anyway you looked at the choices, business would be hurt. The best thing we could do was to create a mechanism by which this would no longer be the case, that we could put a handle on the MTA and obviously, we are working to withdraw the taxes. We have a new Executive Director and CEO [of the MTA], and I’m on record at every hearing, including his confirmation hearing, saying withdraw the tax. At this point, they are still in trouble, but it is a cry that I have for the business community and we all have in the Hudson Valley. So I don’t want anyone to think that we are not aware of it. It was a difficult decision, but the decision to shut down the system would have, I know, hurt the business community even more.
Mr. McLaughlin, what do you suggest as an alternative financial means to support the MTA?
First and foremost, what I’d suggest is that the MTA live within its means. It’s absolutely amazing to me that an organization such as the MTA with millions upon millions of clients, and riders using them on a yearly basis, cannot remain solvent. So there are systemic problems in the MTA. The MTA needs to be completely re-evaluated and looked at, and it needs to be run like a private business. The problem is that everyday you look in the paper and you see more stories about the MTA. Just this week, there was another supervisor punching in and going home. Over-time abuses. There needs to be a very hard look at the MTA and what’s going on there. And the business community should not be burdened by the MTA. Granted it services a lot of the business community and the public who are working in those various jobs, but the problem is, to your point, it wasn’t just the MTA tax. The MTA tax was one of the issues, that has been a real problem for business here in New York, particularly here in Westchester and the Hudson Valley, but there is also high energy taxes that this legislature imposed—500% increase on utility tax bills. Higher health care-related taxes—$840 million worth of additional taxes on health care-related items. Empire Zone benefits which create jobs that were repealed. That this legislature…again, as if it wasn’t bad enough for the business community, as if it wasn’t expensive enough, it’s almost as if they’re going out of their way to kill businesses in New York State.
I would look for a complete restructuring of the MTA. The MTA needs to be completely re-evaluated. How it cannot be profitable is beyond me. I would not want to see any increased taxes. I think you’d have to reduce services, you’d have to reduce staff, and get it to live within its means.