The chairman of the County Legislature's Transportation Committee aims to make his colleagues face the NFTA-funding issue head-on Thursday.
Buffalo Democrat Michael A. Fitzpatrick told The Buffalo News he will attempt to bring his package of transportation-related taxes and fees to a vote, hoping to spark reaction.
"Do I think my plan will pass? I doubt it, but it will force this thing out in the open and hopefully get us closer to an acceptable plan," he said.
Earlier this month Fitzpatrick unveiled an NFTA funding plan that included establishing a fund for road and bridge repairs. He proposes raising $15.1 million this year, including $4.4 million from a 14.7 percent tax on rental cars and another $4.4 million from a wheel tax, involving a charge of $1.26 per wheel on all vehicles.
An additional $8.8 million would be raised through a 2 1/2 -cent-per-gallon gasoline tax. All the proceeds from this source would go to the road-and-bridge fund this year.
Next year, the NFTA would receive one-quarter of the gasoline tax revenues. Each year after that, the authority's share would rise by 25 percent so that by 1994, it would get all the proceeds.
In Fitzpatrick's plan, the state would contribute $1.5 million in emergency aid for 1990 and Erie County would contribute the $8.2 million it has already earmarked for transit assistance.
"I'd love to see this pass and get it behind us. My plan makes sense because we're doing something transportation-oriented. But I realize most of these guys aren't ready, yet," Fitzpatrick said. Personal frustration at the pace of the discussions and Gov. Cuomo's recent verbal attack on the Legislature fuel the lawmaker's attempt to get his colleagues on record with an NFTA vote.
During a stop Friday in Buffalo, Cuomo warned county lawmakers they were risking their credibility and state assistance for other projects by failing to take financial responsibility for the NFTA. The governor also dashed any hopes that the state would agree to continue any or all of the $5.4 million in emergency aid it now provides the agency.
"It costs you all your other requests; you're risking your credibility," Cuomo warned, adding that reneging on the promise to fund the NFTA could land the lawmakers in "bad trouble."
Fitzpatrick said Cuomo's comments were brutally direct, but not without basis. "I'm no torch carrier for Mario Cuomo, but he's within his rights to call it as he sees it," Fitzpatrick said. "We said we'd have a plan by Dec. 31, and we didn't."
If Fitzpatrick does manage to bring his plan to the floor Thursday for a vote, he will be able to count on support from Legislature Chairman Roger I. Blackwell, D-Buffalo. The veteran lawmaker said the Legislature cannot risk tarnishing the area's relationship with Albany when so many critical projects that will require state dollars are on the drawing board.
"This goes way beyond the NFTA and how we decide that piece, how we act could jeopardize waterfront development, the (Memorial) Auditorium project, the World University Games and even what we can do at Rich Stadium at some point. I don't see how we can take that kind of risk," he said.
While Fitzpatrick and Blackwell hope Cuomo's harsh comments will prompt action on NFTA funding, at least one lawmaker said she is offended by the governor's remarks.
Minority Leader Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville, said the governor may have gone too far in taking what she termed "cheap political shots" designed to turn the public against the Legislature.
"I would have thought it was beneath the dignity of the governor to resort to threats and name calling. If his intention was to force us into writing a blank check to a state agency with a structural deficit, he's sadly mistaken," she said.
Mrs. Rath said the public should be outraged by such a "theatrical attempt by the state to wash its hands of its responsibilities."
Cuomo's comments came shortly after Legislature Majority Leader Leonard R. Lenihan, D-Town of Tonawanda, met in Albany with Cuomo staffers on an NFTA funding plan that would require the state to continue the $5.4 million aid for as long as five years. Lenihan said he isn't taking the governor's remarks personally.
"After the meeting (Cuomo aides) said they'd get back to me, but this wasn't what I expected," Lenihan said, joking about the swiftness and negative nature of the response.
Lenihan vowed to continue his effort to develop an acceptable strategy.
"Clearly, we can't give up. I still firmly believe we can eventually pass a long-term funding plan, if I didn't I wouldn't continue to work on it," he said.
Lenihan also said imagining a plan that would include no state aid would be difficult because of attitudes in the County Legislature that would rule out more than "a bare minimum" of county support.