Another day, another scathing suburban condemnation of the commuter tax

2013 mayoral candidate Scott Stringer (Dana Rubinstein)
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Ever since Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer in April proposed reinstuting a transit-dedicated tax on commuters, suburban legislators have been engaged in a constituent-targeted umbrage contest.

This morning, Republican state senator Kevin O'Toole of New Jersey issued the latest expression of outrage, in the Star-Ledger, comparing Stringer's proposal to that of a greedy child.

"The same pleadings heard from children begging parents for a new toy or a pair of overpriced sneakers are, perhaps not surprisingly, the very same pleadings used by politicians while trying to justify reaching once again into taxpayers’ wallets," wrote O'Toole.

The idea itself is childish, of course. But O'Toole's attempt to express anger speaks to a much larger issue. The M.T.A., which relies heavily on debt, needs a new, reliable funding steam. The commuter tax might make sense as a revenue source, but it's near impossible to imagine a universe in which suburban legislators would approve it.

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And without them it's going nowhere.

Suburban officials and editorial boards in New York have been just as alarmed by the idea of bringing back the commuter tax, which is nowhere close to happening in any case.

On May 6, the Poughkeepsie Journal called Stringer's proposal "unbelievable," argued that the M.T.A.  "must start with ways to cut down on its bloated operation," and said tolls on East River bridges made more sense.

In April, Rockland County State Senator David Carlucci, a Democrat, said Stringer's proposal was, "an unfortunate and ill-conceived idea," and, "an onerous tax that would negatively affect working families, many of whom commute to and from New York City every day."

That same month, State Senator Jack Martins of Long Island, a Republican, called the proposal "flawed" and "misguided," arguing that "nowhere does Mr. Stringer suggest or even remotely hint that New York City residents should share the burden—not a fee, not a tax, not even a fare increase. That wouldn’t be politically expedient."

Asked about political viability following his speech promoting the proposal, Stringer said, "We can make a very strong case to Albany if we go back to how we did it in the '70s, in an era when New York City was on the edge and everybody had to come together," adding, "Every mayor when they get elected gets one big ticket from Albany. Mayor Bloomberg got mayoral control of the school system."

The difference is that mayoral control of the school system affected New York City residents, while the commuter tax would affect suburban residents. In fact, mere months ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature rolled back a commuter tax-like levy called the payroll mobility tax due in good part to its extreme unpopularity.

It's also quite hard to imagine Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was responsible for the demise of the original commuter tax and who retains an iron grip on his chamber, agreeing to allow a similar provision to come to the floor.

Asked about the Stringer proposal last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, "Whether it's a good idea or a bad idea, it is not politically viable idea."

Former governor (and newly appointed M.T.A. boardmember) David Paterson agrees. He recently told me, "The current thinking does not accommodate" the commuter tax.

On the other hand, congestion pricing, according to Paterson, "deserves another hearing."