Sam Uretsky

Teabaggers Fail East Coast Demos

If you happen to live in the mid-Atlantic states, a lot of snow has fallen, and more than a little rain. That’s particularly true if you got an edge on the rest of the country and elected your Tea Party politicians early. While the Republicans in Washington haven’t had a chance to really show their stuff, they’ve had demonstration projects going in New Jersey and New York.

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie, who has become popular with the Republican right wing and is routinely invited to the Midwest to speak, wants to go to court. The Federal Transit Administration wants New Jersey to repay at least $271 million of the money already spent on a rail tunnel under the Hudson River, connecting New Jersey with New York. The tunnel would have been the largest infrastructure program in the US, and would have relieved congestion in the 100-year-old tunnel that currently serves the two states.

Aside from creating thousands of high-paying jobs during its construction, the tunnel would have improved conditions for hundreds of thousands of commuters, reduced automobile traffic and improved air quality. New Jersey property values would have increased.

But paying for New Jersey’s share of the tunnel, which would have been jointly financed by the federal government and the Port of New York Authority, might have forced Christie to raise New Jersey’s gasoline tax. New Jersey now taxes gasoline at the rate of 10.5 cents per gallon, which is higher than Georgia’s 7.5¢/gallon and Alaska’s 8¢/gallon, but compared with bordering states such as New York (24.35¢) and Pennsylvania (31.2¢), it’s a bargain.

Now the FTA wants New Jersey to return the money already spent on the tunnel, and Christie doesn’t want to. The New York Times editorialized, “While Mr. Christie was busy hacking away at public education in his state so he could preserve lower tax rates for multimillionaires, his administration also bungled its application for education money through the Race to the Top program and lost $400 million. He also lost federal matching funds for family planning by vetoing the state’s share.”

New York’s Nassau County also got in ahead of the crowd. Nassau is one of the richest counties in the United States, if you follow the “Bill Gates walks into a bar” method of calculating average wealth. The North Shore is home to the Gold Coast mansions, the subject of The Great Gatsby. Until 1950, southern Nassau was potato farming country, but the post-World-War-II housing boom turned the area into a center for massive subdivisions, 3-bedrooms, 2-baths, $11,000.

Nassau was the victim of one-party government, a Republican pocket borough, a family business, but as long as tax increases could be tied to rising property values, nobody complained. Then, in 1994, the area’s largest employer, Grumman aircraft, merged with Northrup and closed the Grumman plants. That left Waldbaum’s supermarkets, now in Chapter 11, as the largest employer. With county bonds approaching “junk” status, voters elected Tom Souzzi, a Democrat.

While Souzzi was no saint, he improved financial management, raised the bond rating significantly and pressed for greater government efficiency, but in 2008, as lower property values lowered tax receipts, he imposed a tax on home heating oil and spoke of raising property taxes. In 2009 Souzzi lost to Edward Mangano, who ran on Republican and Tax Revolt lines — focusing on Tax Revolt. Mangano reversed the heating-oil tax, and then did nothing to reduce expenses or replace the income. His budget assumes $61 million in union givebacks which had not been agreed upon, and union leaders said they were disinclined to offer concessions while taxes were being lowered, leaving their members to carry the downturn’s full weight.

In January 2011, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority (NIFA), a bipartisan oversight commission, unanimously voted to take over county finances. Although Mangano has claimed that the NIFA decision was a Democratic effort to undermine him, the panel included a Republican, a Conservative, and an Independent, including one member who had headed a Mangano election committee.

On Jan. 2, 2011, Mangano sent an email to his constituents, blasting NIFA for asking him to raise more money to balance the budget. “Over and over, NIFA has told me they want the county to increase its revenues. Where I come from, increased revenues mean (sic) higher taxes. I have a message for NIFA: I am not going to raise taxes!” He concluded, in all capital letters, with “Help me get my message out. Make a donation today by clicking here.” He didn’t say what he would do with the money.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2011

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