Cuomo unblocks Bloomberg’s taxi bill by taking public ownership of the process

Black car and yellow taxi. (Jason Kuffer, via flickr)
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Monday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg summoned three sponsors of legislation that would make real his outer-borough-taxi plan to City Hall to discuss the prior week’s events.

In attendance were Assemblyman Carl Heastie of the Bronx, the primary sponsor of the bill, which would allow livery cars to legally pick up street hails in upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs, something livery cars have been doing illegally for years now. Two of Heastie's co-sponsors, Assemblymen Guillermo Linares and Karim Camara, representing Upper Manhattan and Crown Heights, also showed up.

They had plenty to grouse about. The prior week in Albany had been a tumultuous one, beginning with the promise of a compromise on the taxi overhaul and ending in confusion and acrimony, when Governor Andrew Cuomo appeared to lose interest at the last second in a painstakingly wrought compromise.

The amended legislation would have been the culmination of a months-long process that started at the beginning of the year, when the mayor included an outer-borough taxi proposal in his State of the City address.

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By the end of June, both houses of the state legislature had approved a bill based on the mayor's proposal. The bill called for the city to issue up to 30,000 three-year, $1,500 permits to livery car drivers allowing them to both respond to pre-arranged calls and pick up street hails. It also called for the auction of 1,500 regular taxi medallions, something the city estimated would bring in more than $1 billion in revenue for the city. (Taxi medallions now sell for upwards of $1 million each.)

All that was needed was the governor's signature. But the governor, whose father serves on the board of a powerful industry financier called Medallion Financial, indicated that he wouldn't approve the bill as written. A chapter amendment, otherwise known as a compromise bill, was needed.

As of last Wednesday afternoon, the bill’s supporters believed that they had reached an agreement with the governor’s office on a compromise version of the original bill that passed in June, and that the compromise would be included in that day's otherwise productive special session, the one that produced the tax code overhaul.

The amended legislation would have reduced the number of permits for outer-borough taxis from the original 30,000 to 17,000 and required that 2,000 of them be accessible to the handicapped, among other alterations.

“We approached the session fully anticipating that the piece of legislation was going to be an integral part of the session, and it wasn’t,” said Linares, by cell phone.

“The mayor,” continued Linares, “wanted to express appreciation for our efforts.” Presumably, there was also some strategizing involved. Though it's unclear what power if any the mayor has over the ultimate fate of the proposal.

"It is now with the governor," said Linares.

On Friday, when it had become clear that the governor was not interested in the compromise legislation as written, the Assembly speaker sent the governor the original, June version of the bill. The governor then had 10 days to either sign the bill, or veto it.

Yesterday afternoon, the governor's office announced, via a statement emailed at 4:54 p.m., that it would hold a taxi summit on Wednesday to hammer out a deal:

"Among the outstanding issues are handicap accessibility of livery cabs, the transferability of and market for livery permits, livery and yellow cab pickups at airports, lack of financial incentives to purchase handicap accessible licenses, and concerns regarding the effectiveness of Taxi and Limousine Commission enforcement," read the statement. "As we have said all along, we are working very hard to reach consensus with the stakeholders in order to address taxi access issues in the five boroughs. The meter is running and this is the last chance to get a deal done before the end of the year."

Then the statement entered interesting territory: "The issues are not primarily governmental ones among the Governor, the state legislature and the City. There are, however, remaining issues among the various stakeholders, business and advocacy groups whose interests must be reconciled."

In other words, the statement seemed to confirm that which the bill's supporters had been saying a while now, and that which the Cuomo administration had been denying: that there was agreement among legislative leaders, the city and governor's office, but that executives and their lobbyists from the yellow-taxi industry were still opposed to a bill that would introduce new business competition.

(The New York Post today cites "sources" saying that Cuomo had held up the taxi bill because of a separate, ongoing fight with the Bloomberg administration over the for-profit conversaion of health-insurance company.)

It should be noted that this is also the second summit the governor has held in as many months. And that it's in Albany. And that, for what it's worth, the Bloomberg administration was not initially invited.

"As of 5:48 p.m., we have not as of yet received an invitation,” said Julie Wood, a spokeswoman for the mayor.

Taxi and Limousine commissioner David Yassky was later invited.