Two days after the Empire Center highlighted looming deficits in the state Thruway Authority’s proposed budget, the authority’s board has put off the meeting at which it was expected to adopt a final budget for 2015.
A spokesman for the authority reportedly said the postponement, to next Friday from Monday, was due to (in paraphrase) a “scheduling conflict” following the Dec. 3 resignation of the board’s chairman, Howard Milstein. In fact, Milstein’s departure was announced Dec. 3 and supposedly had been in the works for a while.
As noted in this space Wednesday, the proposed 2015 budget projects shortfalls growing to more than $300 million by 2018, mostly due to the cost of constructing the new Tappan Zee Bridge. To balance expenses with its own revenues alone, the authority would need to raise tolls by 5 percent next year, growing to 44 percent in 2018, the proposed budget shows.
Thruway authority officials did not respond to emails sent by the Empire Center requesting more information. This CBS-6 Albany TV news report Thursday evening quoted a Thruway spokesman as saying the board would be cutting operating expenses by 30 percent in 2015. That would be quite substantial, adding up to nearly $90 million, if true.
So now what?
From the late-breaking Gannett story on the board meeting postponement:
“If you want to avoid a toll increase, like we did last year, the state subsidizes the toll,” [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo told reporters. “It’s just another agency of the state. It’s an entity of the state.”
For the first 60 years of its existence, the state Thruway Authority was self-supporting. Since 2013-14, it has been receiving combined direct and indirect state budget subsidies of nearly $90 million a year — including a state pickup of the cost of Thruway State Police Troop T — which was Cuomo’s way of preventing a proposed 45 percent commercial toll hike. Now, the governor talks casually of raising that subsidy. But, you know, $90 million here and $90 million there, next thing you know, you’re talking real money. Having an authority dependent on a combination of tolls and a permanently larger tax subsidy could turn out to be the worst of all worlds for motorists and taxpayers.
As for the second sentence of the governor’s quote … wha-huh? The governor thinks a toll-supported public authority is “just another agency of the state”? That may be true as a political matter, at least from Cuomo’s perspective: he appoints the chairman and board members, and they do what he tells them. But it isn’t supposed to work that way. This authority is a completely off-budget corporate entity and the law envisions at least a pretense of independence from its directors. Here’s a primer.
Somewhere, Thomas E. “Pay-as-You-Go” Dewey is not smiling.