If you're not from New York, you may think this post doesn't apply to you. But please bear with me. You'll see that it applies to us all.
This week, we in New York City saw the death of Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan--which would have reduced gridlock in New York by charging certain drivers to enter the central business district--thanks to the fact the Speaker Sheldon Silver refused to bring a vote on the proposal to the floor of the New York State Assembly.
You follow me, right? It wasn't voted down by the entirety of our state level representatives, the politicians representing the totality of the people of New York. No. The will of the people was not expressed. Instead, an insider group of Democratic Assembly members, forming a de facto committee, insisted that Silver put the kabosh on the plan by never allowing a vote.
And why? The only possible explanation must be that they were worried that if the will of the people of New York State had been expressed by a vote in the full state assembly, congestion pricing probably would have passed.
After all, the plan had the support of Mayor Bloomberg, the New York City Council, Governor Paterson, State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, State Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco, the 42 Republican members of the State Assembly, a large coalition of environmental and business groups, 67% of of the voters of New York, and a number, as yet unknown, of Democratic State Assembly members.
Meanwhile, the plan would have brought: $354 million in federal funding for improved public transportation as well an annual $500 million raised by the plan; reduced greenhouse gas emissions and more breathable air to a population that suffers record asthma levels and the second worse air quality of any city in the country; an 11% reduction in traffic congestion; 20-40% reduction in time lost in traffic; and a major dent in the loss of business revenue caused by the loss of this time.
So why wouldn't Speaker Silver allow the coalition of Democrats and Republicans who may well have formed a majority in the State Assembly to exercise the will of the people of New York State and vote the congestion plan through? According to the New York Observer, it is because the Assembly Democrats would have fired him.
So the question becomes, why were so many powerful Democrats in the State Assembly so set against congestion pricing when it had popular support and would have done so much good for the citizens of New York City? This is where we turn to how Sheldon Silver's shenanigans are of so much concern to all of us, not just New Yorkers.
Let me take a step back, now, and look at climate change politics on the Federal level. Scientists have been warning policy makers about greenhouse gas accumulation for many years. According to a recent poll, 7 out of ten Americans want the Federal Government to take more action on climate change and half of Americans want much more action. (And at the local level, Speaker Silver please take note, three in four Americans want their own cities or local governments to do something about climate change.)
So what's the hold up? Campaign contributions, I fear. The do-something-about-global-warming dollars just aren't pouring in. On the other hand, big gas and oil contributions are.
According to an MSN Money Central article on campaign finance during the 2006 election cycle, gas and oil made $14 million in contributions, not including money given to "independent" 527 groups. According to the MSN article (and bearing in mind it was written before the 2006 election):
The oil and gas industry also gives heavily to Texas Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; to Sens. James Talent of Missouri, Conrad Burns of Montana and George Allen of Virginia, all of whom sit on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; to Illinois' Dennis Hastert, speaker of the House, who plays a huge role in deciding what legislation moves to the floor for a vote and what doesn't; and to Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum, head of the Senate Republican Conference and announced candidate for Republican whip in 2006 if he wins re-election.
My point? Money, sadly, may do more of the talking than voting, and not just at the Federal level. Which brings me back to New York City and congestion pricing.
It turns out that in the aftermath of 9/11, when New York banned single-occupancy vehicles from crossing into Manhattan through the tunnels during the morning rush hour, New York City's 2,000 or so parking garages noticed a huge drop off in business. The fewer people driving into Manhattan, the less money they make.
And since the whole point of congestion pricing is to reduce the number of people driving into Manhattan, you can guess where New York's parking lot owners stand. Their solution to the potential dilemma? We're back to the Big Oil scenario. And you can see for yourself by searching the term "parking" in the campaign contribution database of the New York State Board of Elections.
In 2007, the same year that Mayor Bloomberg introduced his congestion pricing proposal, Knickerbocker Parking gave $20,000 to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee and $25,000 to the New York State Democratic Committee.
This is to say nothing of the other $40,000 or so in contributions to individual candidates by other organizations that come up when you search "parking." And it says nothing of the parking-related contributions that this search doesn't bring to the fore (for example, searching for Sheldon Mallah, who is a NYC parking magnate, brings up another $10,000 or so).
And so we're back to the question: why did the powerful Democrats in the State Assembly want so badly for congestion pricing to fail that they couldn't allow a free vote? Did the Democrats destroy congestion pricing for the parking garages' 40 pieces of silver? Or were they representing the wills of their constituents? We can't look at Assembly members' voting records to see, because Sheldon Silver never brought it to a vote. We'll never know. It's all a secret.
Behind closed doors, those sons of guns killed a piece of inspired vision. Congestion pricing may have it's flaws, but it would have made a worthy attempt at addressing a lot of New York City's problems. Silver and his crew owed it to us all to let us know where they stood and to be transparent enough to let us know whether their opinions were formed by their voters or they contributors.
The people of the United State, the people of New York City, the people of New York State and the people of the world all want to do what will help preserve planetary habit we depend on for our happiness, health and well-being. The source of politicians' campaign contributions must not stand in the way of that.
But corporate interests are perverting our democratic process. I'm not an experienced activist and I can't claim I know exactly what to do (though, I know, for example, that 1Sky could sure use our help). But I do see that the time for those of us who care enough to change our lifestyles to work at changing our politicians--or at least changing their minds. The way will become clear.
Individual lifestyle change, using fewer resources is hugely important but we still need more if we want to save the planet. We need political action, too. We have to reengage in our democracy so that no politician would dare to do what Sheldon Silver did in New York State or anywhere else again. So where do we go from here?
Photo courtesy of the New York Times. By the way, that's me, farthest to the left with the sunglasses, and the famous bike genius George Bliss, who designed and built our rickshaws, dead center with the sign that says "Sick of traffic."