Going down the road with the highway bill; New York State’s public integrity rankings

When John Boehner was preparing to leave the House Speakership last month he said was going to clean up the barn before the new speaker started. He and other congressional leaders did get some things done during the last week in October. There was one corner of the barn that Boehner did not get to.

Congress that week approved the 35th short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund, providing funding through November 20th. This was all to set the stage for a final resolution of the Trust Fund matter for a six year period.

Earlier this year Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and California Senator Barbara Boxer came up with a bi-partisan Senate version of a highway bill. It would have authorized a six year transportation plan. It did not identify enough funding to pay for any more than the first three years of the six. The sources of funding, such as they were, included taking money from Federal Reserve banks and between 2018 and 2025, selling 101 million barrels of oil from the nation’s petroleum reserves. It passed the Senate with a strong bi-partisan majority.

The House of Representatives wanted nothing to do with that plan. They worked on their own version but could not come up with one until the House last week labored and brought forth a six year plan of their own. Unfortunately the House version did not identify enough money to get past the first three of six years. They included as revenues such things as selling oil from the nation’s petroleum reserve and a grab bag of other things.

Congress’ highway plans seem to have taken their inspiration from a cartoon character from days gone by, J. Wellington Wimpy, who famously said “”I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

That such shaky financing is part of the proposed solution should not be much of a surprise. When the House adopted a budget in 2013 they said it would balance in ten years. Simplifying that balancing act, that budget said that trillions of dollars would be produced in revenues because of all the new economic activity that the budget would create, without specifying those revenues. At the same time the budget penciled in trillions of dollars in reduced spending over ten years in categories to be identified later. Those revenue and expense projections were referred to as “magic asterisks.” The author of that budget was House Budget Committee Chair and all-around fiscal guru Paul Ryan. I believe he recently got a new job.

There appears to be overwhelming support in Congress for transportation projects, unless of course you are referring to public transit projects in the Northeast, which is the area of the country where public transit is most used. Transit funding is part of the Highway Trust Fund. The Buffalo News reported on November 7th that the cut that the House bill made in public transit funding will reduce the NFTA’s federal funds by twenty-five percent, which may lead to service cuts and higher fares. House Majority Caucus member Chris Collins of Clarence has promised to fight to restore that funding.

The basic problem with trying to complete a new Highway Trust Fund bill is that it a classic example of someone trying to shove ten pounds of something into a five pound bag. The Highway Trust Fund has always been funded by the federal fuel tax, last increased over twenty years ago, but that source of revenue cannot keep up with the growing demands of a deteriorating transportation system. So Congress is left with trying to sell a six year bill with only three years of funding, and that funding is just a collection of gimmicks. It is just sooooo hard for members of Congress to say the word TTT AAA XXX.

New York State’s public integrity rankings

Even as people in New York State turn up their noses at ethics problems and political corruption in neighboring New Jersey and farther away Illinois, we have to admit we have some problems of our own. The Center for Public Integrity has a numerical system for ranking public integrity in the 50 states. They just released a new report on the subject.

The Center has evaluated over two hundred criteria for determining the public integrity rankings in the 50 states. New York State, of course, has had a few political corruption and ethics problems over the years. Eleven legislators have resigned in the past two years over issues related to alleged misconduct. The former Comptroller went to prison. A governor resigned. The former Assembly Speaker is on trial and the former Senate Majority Leader will be in a similar situation next week. Five Senate leaders have been charged with corruption in recent years.

Here are few of the highlights and lowlights of New York’s public integrity rankings, as identified by the Center for Public Integrity:

  • Public Access to Information            Grade: F (55)     National Rank: 11th
  • Political Financing                                            Grade: d- (62)   Rank: 24th
  • Electoral Oversight                                          Grade: F(39)      Rank: 49th
  • Executive Accountability                               Grade: d+(68)    Rank: 15th
  • Legislative Accountability                             Grade :d-(62)     Rank: 25th
  • Judicial Accountability                               Grade: F(43)      Rank48th
  • State Budget Processes                                 Grade: F(52)       Rank: 50th
  • State Civil Service Management                    Grade: c-(72)     Rank: 1st
  • Procurement                                                   Grade: F(49)       Rank: 48th
  • Internal Auditing                                              Grade: b+(89)    Rank: 1st
  • Lobbying Disclosure                                        Grade: c+(77)    Rank: 5th
  • State Pension Fund Management                   Grade: c+(77)    Rank: 10th

New York’s overall grade, as developed by the Center study, was D-. The State is ranked 30th among the states on the collective impact of these issues. The State Comptroller’s internal auditing program helped the overall grade somewhat.

I guess if New York State were a public school it might qualify to be treated as being in “receivership” status, as is now about to happen in Buffalo.