Billion Dollar Hole

Congestion Pricing Puzzle, Face Mask Ban, Pivotal Primary Races

Good morning from the Flower City, Rochester, New York.

State lawmakers are back home in their districts following the 2024 Legislative Session in Albany last week. While many elected officials are deep in campaign season ahead of June’s primary elections, much of the focus remains on the billion dollar hole in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) budget resulting from Governor Hochul’s decision to pause implementation of congestion pricing in New York City.

The congestion pricing plan, which would have charged personal vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street a $15 toll, was slated to generate roughly $1 billion in annual revenue for the MTA for accessibility upgrades, large-scale infrastructure projects, and procurement of modern buses and train cars.  Following the announcement, the MTA said in a statement, “The MTA cannot award contracts that do not have a committed, identified funding source. Until there is a commitment for funding the balance of the 2020-2024 Capital Program, the MTA will need to reorganize the Program to prioritize the most basic and urgent needs.” Lawmakers considered a handful of half-baked proposals to make up the budget gap in the final days of session, including an “IOU” bill and a payroll mobility tax increase, but ultimately left town without reaching a consensus. 

Hochul has argued that the situation is not as urgent as everyone has made it out to be saying, “When you think about it, the revenues from congestion pricing would not really accrue until much later. A year from now, we'd be looking at the money that was expected. So that's why we don't need to take immediate action.” That said, the MTA had planned to use the funding stream to leverage the bond market and provide more immediate revenue.

Congestion pricing is not just a downstate problem, says our Jack O’Donnell.

For more on its impact and other issues from the 2024 NYS Legislative Session, listen as Jack joins WBEN’s ‘A New Morning’ team here.

The disconnect between the Executive Chamber and MTA leadership is clear despite Hochul’s assertion that “I’m joined at the hip with the MTA on all of their projects going forward.” At a press conference, MTA CEO Janno Lieber responded to a question about the path forward saying, “I think you should address any questions about where do we go from here on congestion pricing to the Governor’s Office because clearly they’re the actor in that respect. I mean I’ll just say we at the MTA are not giving up on congestion pricing, not at all.” 

“When you think about it, the revenues from congestion pricing would not really accrue until much later. A year from now, we'd be looking at the money that was expected. So that's why we don't need to take immediate action.”

Governor Hochul

A return to Albany for the Legislature remains on the table if anything approaching an agreement can be reached while the lawsuit filed by pro-congestion pricing advocates may also play a significant role in what happens next. Stay tuned. 

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands were in Albany for a Royal Visit last week. Building off of the century-long Dutch ties to the Capital Region, Hochul and Netherlands Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Liesje Schreinemacher signed a memorandum of understanding to formalize a shared commitment to sustainability in semiconductor manufacturing. In a statement, Hochul said, “New York and the Netherlands share a belief that the countries that lead the semiconductor renaissance will chart the path forward for the rest of the world. With this MOU, we are doubling down on our commitment to putting collaboration, innovation, and sustainability front and center in our effort to build the next generation of semiconductor technology and create high-tech, good-paying jobs.” The agreement also creates a pathway for the sharing of best practices and academic collaboration between New York and Dutch Universities. 

Hochul and her partners in the Legislature are considering a measure to ban masks and face coverings on the New York City subway, with “common-sense exemptions” for health or religious reasons. At a press conference on Monday, she cited “a group donning masks took over a subway car, scaring riders and chanting things about Hitler and wiping out Jews” as justification for the new push. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has also explored mask bans in the past, but Hochul acknowledged it would likely take an act from the Legislature to implement such a ban. The policy also faces opposition from groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union who said the law “will be selectively enforced—used to arrest, doxx, surveil, and silence people of color and protestors the police disagree with.” Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris is also skeptical saying, “I think the Governor has gotten ahead of herself. This is not something that has been seriously discussed with the Legislature. I think it’s a very serious proposal with all sorts of ramifications that may be unrelated to what she’s trying to get at.”

In presidential election news, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein will not appear on the ballot in November. Third party candidates must receive 45,000 signatures or 1% of the total number of votes in the previous gubernatorial election. According to the state Board of Election, Stein only registered 34,101 signatures. Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. may be on New York’s ballot in the fall thanks in large part to his expensive voter outreach strategy, reportedly paying people $90 an hour to collect signatures on his behalf, but is facing a residency challenge first. While New York is safely in Biden’s column, the prevalence of Stein and Kennedy on the ballot in key swing states could have a material effect on the election. 

Some other, important primary races that are on the ballot on June 25th:

  • 35th Assembly District: With Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry’s retirement, former State Senator Hiram Monserrate is running against District Leader Karina Hooks who has been endorsed by Aubry. Monserrate was removed from the State Senate in 2010 after being convicted of assault. This is the latest in a series of attempts at a comeback for the former “amigo.” 

  • 37th Assembly District: Incumbent Assemblyman Juan Ardilla has two primary opponents following sexual assault allegations last year that prompted prominent Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Governor Hochul, to call on him to resign. Ardilla is being challenged by Claire Valdez, a New York City Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member and union organizer, as well as Johanna Carmona, a legislative manager for the City Council who came in third place in the 2022 primary. 

  • 40th Assembly District: Incumbent Ron Kim is being challenged by entrepreneur Yi Andy Chen who ran an unsuccessful bid for City Council in 2021. The race features a third candidate, Dao Yin, though he has no cash on hand and media outlets had reported that most of his listed donors were fake. 

  • 50th Assembly District: DSA member Emily Gallagher is running for reelection against Anathea Simpkin, the Associate Vice President of Sandy Hook Promise, and attorney Andrew Bodiford. 

  • 56th Assembly District: Incumbent Stefani Zinerman is facing a primary challenge from political first-timer Eon Huntley who has been endorsed by the DSA. Huntley has raised enough money to run a serious challenge, with his campaign reporting they have qualified to receive $175,000 in public matching funds. 

  • 69th Assembly District: Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell’s retirement has prompted a pair of high-profile candidates to enter the primary race. Micah Lasher, a political consultant and former aide to Governor Hochul is running, as is public defender Eli Northrup. Lasher, who is endorsed by Rep. Adriano Espaillat, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and City Comptroller Brand Lander, has more than twice the cash on hand than Northrup who is running a spirited race and was recently endorsed by MOA O’Donnell.

  • 70th Assembly District: Four Democrats are competing for the seat being vacated by Inez Dickens’ retirement. Jordan Wright is the son of former Manhattan Democratic Leader Keith Wright and has been endorsed by Dickens. Former Lt. Governor Brian Benjamin’s District Director from his time in the State Senate, Shana Harmongoff, is also running. The other two candidates are Maria Ordonez, a former City Council candidate, and Department of Justice law clerk Craig Schley. 

  • 77th Assembly District: Incumbent Landon Dais won the special election to fill out the remainder of former Assembly Member Latoya Joyner’s term and is now running for a full term of his own. Dais is being challenged by Leonardo Coello, who currently serves as Mayor Eric Adams’ Bronx Borough Director. 

  • 82nd Assembly District: Incumbent Michael Benedetto is facing a primary challenge from Jonathan Soto for a third time. Soto is a former staffer for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and is endorsed by the DSA and Working Families Party. 

In Washington, D.C., House appropriators began markups on a number of FY2025 appropriations bills. House Appropriations Committee Chair Tom Cole (R-Okla.) is giving his members wide latitude during the amendment process saying, “Any member is free to offer an amendment, so things can be put in bills even if folks don't agree with it.” So far, lawmakers have advanced five spending bills out of committee—State-Foreign Operations, Homeland Security, Defense, Financial Services, and Legislative Branch. Notably, a measure to raise the pay for members of Congress, which hasn’t been adjusted since 2009, was left out of the Legislative Branch appropriation bill. 

Preparing for the possibility that Republicans could sweep November’s elections and win control of both Congress and the White House, House Speaker Mike Johnson held a meeting with Senate Republicans last week where he outlined a potential agenda for a GOP-controlled government. At the top of the list are tax cuts and “regulatory reform.” Both initiatives would face intense pushback from Democrats, and possibly some moderate Republicans, but a GOP trifecta would allow Johnson and his colleagues in the Senate to advance their priorities through budget reconciliation, sidestepping the filibuster in the process. Speaking on the Trump-era tax cut in 2017 that is scheduled to expire this year, Johnson said, “Tax cuts need to be extended. Otherwise, we're going to have the biggest tax hikes in U.S. history.”  

Former President Trump was back at the U.S. Capitol last week for the first time since January 6th, 2021. Trump met with Republican members of Congress and despite the conference’s penchant for in-fighting, as well as Trump’s personal animus towards some Republican lawmakers, he kept the meetings civil and members provided a unified front in their comments to the press. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) offered, “He thanked people over and over and he just said, ‘I know that some of us in the room had our differences,’ but —and he reiterated this in his remarks at the press conference—‘Where we've had our differences, we've worked them out.’ And he said, ‘I just want to let you know I support all of you and I want you to be successful’.”

The same day, Trump formally endorsed former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan in his bid for Senate. Hogan has been a vocal critic of Trump and made headlines when he departed from the GOP party line following Trump’s felony conviction in New York, saying the verdict should be respected. The endorsement does not do Hogan any favors in a solidly blue state like Maryland. Following the announcement, Hogan’s campaign released a statement that said, “Governor Hogan has been clear he is not supporting President Trump, just as he didn’t in 2016 and 2020.”

Nevada held their primary elections last week, including the Republican primary for Senate. Both Democrats and Republicans see the seat as one of the keys to control of the upper Chamber next year and the state will also be a key-swing state in the presidential election. Sam Brown, a purple heart recipient and the National Republican Senate Campaign Committee’s (NRSCC) preferred candidate, easily defeated Jeff Gunter, a former ambassador in the Trump administration. Brown, who picked up a late endorsement from Trump as well, will run against incumbent Democrat Jacky Rosen in November. This is a race to watch.

Across the pond in France, citizens are dealing with election madness of their own. Following a defeat for his Renaissance party at the hands of the right-wing Marine Le Pen’s party, French president Emmanuel Macron dissolved the lower house of France’s parliament in order to force two new rounds of legislative elections in June and July. Macron said he believes the decision shows “confidence in our democracy, in letting the sovereign people have their say.” 

Stay tuned in the USA! 


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