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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

MTA payroll tax nix unlikely despite two-party LI urging

A train at the Syosset station on the

A train at the Syosset station on the Port Jefferson branch of the Long Island Rail Road on July 26, 2011. Credit: Chris Ware

From its inception, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority payroll tax on employers sparked complaints throughout the region's suburbs.

Five years ago, the State Legislature approved the measure. Gov. David A. Paterson signed it into law while a more controversial proposal -- placing tolls on bridges into New York City that currently are free -- died.

The tax generates more than $1.2 billion a year for the area's transit system -- even after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and lawmakers partially rolled it back in 2011. It has survived an extended court challenge.

In at least two key Long Island election races, any association with the tax seems to remain a political third rail.

The reasons are clear. In 2010, Republican Lee Zeldin unseated Democratic Sen. Brian Foley in Suffolk after a campaign largely spent pounding away at the incumbent's vote for the payroll tax. And politicos seem to believe that, to a lesser degree, Port Washington Democrat Craig Johnson's vote for the tax helped Republican Jack Martins take his Senate seat.

This year, the Democratic candidates for both those seats -- the 3rd District in Suffolk and the 7th District in Nassau -- say they'd support a repeal, as their Republican rivals have already vowed.

A spokesman for Adrienne Esposito, the Democratic candidate vying to succeed Zeldin against Republican Tom Croci, referred to the "job-crushing MTA payroll tax" as a "lingering nightmare" and said cutting waste and growing the economy "should be looked at for revenue instead."

Democrat Adam Haber, challenging Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola), said through a spokesman he'd support a repeal given Nassau's heavy tax burden.

Senate Republican spokesman Scott Reif responded that Haber and Esposito "are running to join the same New York City Democratic conference that enacted the job-killing MTA payroll tax over our objections. In 2009, every Senate Democrat voted for the MTA payroll tax -- and every single Senate Republican voted against it.

Despite the complaints, outright repeal appears unlikely.

Unlike some taxes, the so-named Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Mobility Tax doesn't expire at a specific date, and so it does not automatically face a new vote.

Also, those in charge of the sprawling MTA insist that it has taken significant efficiency measures, reined in expenses, kept fares as low as feasible and is selling off hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.

During the failed court challenges, MTA executives said killing the payroll tax without substituting equivalent revenue for it would prove "catastrophic" to the transit system.

Neither Cuomo nor the Assembly's Democratic leaders have supported eliminating the tax outright.

Repeal bills sponsored by Republicans and Democrats from the city's northern suburbs and Long Island failed to advance in the Assembly this year.

The 2009 measure imposed a tax of one third of a percentage point on payroll expenses in the MTA region. In 2011, the state pared down the number of payers by exempting smaller employers as well as school districts.

The state agreed to provide the difference in revenues, up to $300 million, to the MTA through the annual state budget.

Chances are it stays that way for now.

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