| And the highwayman came riding— Riding—riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old Governor's-door.
On Jan. 22, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled his proposed 2013-14 Executive Budget and Management Plan for New York State. The budget proposal stresses investment in economic development, reconstruction from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, spending for local governments and schools, and supposedly, no new taxes or fees.
That last bit is where the math starts getting fuzzy.
Legally, taxes and fees are different things. They can also be differentiated from fines and surcharges. That is the loophole being exploited by the governor to create additional revenues for the cash-strapped state. Through the use of masking language like “reform” and “public safety," residents and visitors of the Empire State can expect the long arm of the law to reach deeper into their pockets.
Among the governor’s proposals is a scheme to make it harder to plea bargain for serious traffic violations (e.g., speeding over 20 mph) and imposes an $80 surcharge on those violations which are usually reduced by prosecutors and judges in the local courts.
Motorists in Niagara Falls (and numerous other municipalities in New York) sometimes have the ability to work out a deal with the prosecutor and the court when they are faced with a moving violation. Knowing that being found guilty of a moving violation can lead to the imposition of “points” on their license and the prospect of higher insurance rates into the future, violators are motivated to seek a plea to a lesser charge.
Many cities, towns and villages are also interested in pleading down the charge because it serves their financial interests. A fine for a moving violation goes to the state, with a share of the revenue eventually filtering down to the issuing municipality.
However, the entire fine for a non- moving violation (such as a parking ticket) goes to the jurisdiction that issued the ticket, cutting the state completely out of the mix.
In an effort to boost the state's revenues, the 2013-14 budget proposals include legislation to add the new mandatory surcharge. Referring to the tradition of plea bargaining, the Program Overview of Cuomo’s Executive Budget Briefing Book offers this justification: “This practice threatens public safety and leads to a loss of $58 million annually in state revenue.”
Exactly how pleading down to a local charge (and diverting funds from the state) becomes a threat to public safety was not elaborated upon.
“It’s just a huge money grab,” stated Gillian Brown, a local defense attorney and special counsel to the law firm of Colucci and Gallaher. “It’s particularly regressive because it hits everybody regardless of your ability to pay.” Regardless of a judge’s discretion when levying a fine against an offender, the surcharge is still imposed. “It’s a one-size-fits-all tax, basically,” he added.
“It seems to me somebody woke up and realized, ‘we’re losing all this money; we better do something about it.’ They just came up with a proposal that no matter what, you’re going to pay the State its share,” Brown asserted. “It’s not going to make the streets any safer. It’s not going to change anything. All it did was guarantee insurance companies more money because parking tickets don’t get reported on your insurance.”
Initially left unaddressed was the inherent impact on the local government itself. If the state is actively concerned about the loss of revenue from plead down speeding tickets, they do so with the knowledge that local governments traditionally have relied on those funds as well. The City of Niagara Falls, no stranger to fiscal woes, could be among those areas to see a reduction in revenue.
The administration and collection of parking violation revenue falls under the controller. Maria Brown explained to the Reporter that revenues received from the state through court-imposed fines are identified in the budget as City Court Fines. While they were previously broken out into Court Fines and Traffic Fines, they are now lumped together when received from the state. Brown was able to confirm that “when they plea it down (to a parking ticket), that is our revenue.”
Controller Brown could not estimate the exact impact that the new surcharge could have on the city’s parking revenues, but thought a reduction was likely. The Chief City Court Clerk’s Office could not provide figures on the numbers of tickets issued for speeding and whether they were disposed of in the form of lesser violations.
Brown pointed out that the revenue the city earns on speeding tickets reduced to parking tickets is offset, in part, whenever a police officer appears in court. By union contract the officer gets three hours straight time, which the city has to pay.
Realizing that many municipalities are concerned about the potential revenue impact, Secretary to the Governor Lawrence Schwartz sent a letter to the executive directors of the New York State Association of Counties, the New York Conference of Mayors, and the New York Association of Towns to assure them and their members that the budget proposal was not a threat.
“The Governor’s Budget proposal to make roadways safer by addressing reckless driving habits has been misrepresented by some and misunderstood by others. To be clear, this proposal will not reduce local revenue from speeding tickets, nor will it clog the courts,” Schwartz stressed in his correspondence.
“It has been suggested that this proposal will somehow reduce local traffic ticket revenues, but that is not the case. Adding the State surcharge to “parking on the pavement” violations does not diminish the court’s authority to impose a fine up to $150 for such violations and thus does not take away any local revenue associated with such cases,” Schwartz continued. “While this proposal should generate some additional revenue for the State to help offset the costs incurred by State Police who write many of the tickets that are ultimately plead down, it will not, in anyway, be at the expense of local governments.”
While the exact impact on local governments cannot be precisely ascertained, what is certain is that the additional burden will be carried by the users of the roads of New York State. The governor’s concern over $58 million in lost revenue seems oddly misplaced, considering he seemingly has no problem walking away from an additional $100 million that the Niagara Falls Maid of the Mist tour boat concession could have earned for the state if he would have put out an RFP for competitive bidding on the license.
Is it preferable to hit ordinary citizens than to ask millionaire contributors to pay more to exploit our natural resources?
To sell the budget to the general public, Gov. Cuomo and the New York State Democratic Committee have hit the airwaves with commercials touting the proposal as good for New York State. A self-described Republican businessman and Cuomo speak to proposal’s capacity to create new jobs and that it contains “no new taxes.”
It may be legally correct that there are no new taxes, but new revenues will surely be drawn out of the new budget, straight from New York citizens’ pockets.
Be careful on the roads; a new form of highway robbery is underway.