The Three-Card Monte Game, and the Suckers Are Us

It's an old three-card monte game played by the politicians time and again -- and the suckers are the people of New York.

Once again, we are being treated to a kind of ballet dance among the mayor, the governor, the legislative leaders and the Metrpolitan Transportation Agency. And, once again, the whole affair is embedded in an old game to delude us and make it seem as though the power is with the big, bad MTA and not the highest elected officials, the governor and the mayor ... and the leaders of the Legislature.

I remember when the MTA was created back in 1968. John Lindsay was mayor, Nelson Rockefeller was governor. And the basic idea (although they didn't admit it) was to divert attention from City Hall and the State House and put the blame for fare increases on this blob of an agency. The public would always think of the MTA as a separate unit of government, even though the members of this body were appointed by the governor and the mayor.

The political motive was clear: let this virtually anonymous, unelected blob of an agency take the heat, not the real rulers of New York. The subway and bus fare was always the hot-button political issue in New York, and better the board members of the MTA take the heat than the elected chief executives. That was the idea and over the years, it has worked, more or less, to diffuse and defuse blame.

Now, once again, the alarm bells have been ringing. This time, the MTA people keep threatening to raise the fares by 23 percent unless something is done soon. The latest deadline is next Thursday. How dare they act as though they're in charge when they are merely puppets?

The MTA says it's preparing to vote for a 23-percent fare increase and cuts in service on March 25 unless the money it needs is provided by Albany. Richard Ravitch, the erudite former chairman of the MTA, has come up with a plan that calls for a payroll tax in the 12 counties of the metropolis, tolls on the East and Harlem River bridges and an 8-percent increase in subway and bus fares.

Gov. Paterson supports a version of the Ravitch plan and so does Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the Democratic-controlled Assembly. But many lawmakers in the State Senate, after sounding out their constituents, are dead set against the tolls. But they do support a plan that calls  for a lower payroll tax and a lower fare increase?

As they pass the buck back and forth, you can't blame the average subway or bus rider for being a bit confused. The local politicians are demanding that Albany fork over the money -- and, if Albany does, where's that money going to come from? The taxpayers, of course. And, if the fare increase gains support, who's going to pay for it? The poor guys and gals who ride the subways, of course.

That's why it reminds you of a weird card game or perhaps a ballet. Everybody points to the other guy for the money. But, basically, it's the little guy who's going to pay, whether it's a fare increase, new tolls or a hefty levy on payrolls. The costs will be passed on to the strap hanger, and he'll pay and pay and pay.

Let's not fall for the political tricksters. To misquote a little classical poetry -- don't ask for whom the fare tolls, it tolls for thee.

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