The Subway High Of Public Advocate Candidates


Election silly season appears to have fired back up again. This week, public advocate candidate Melissa Mark-Viverito fired off the headline-grabbing policy position that tax revenue from legal marijuana should be put towards improving the subways. Her opponent, Rafael Espinal, took it a step further, saying that 100 percent of the revenue should go towards fixing the subways.

Why stop there? How about creating vaping lounges on the platforms and replacing the current snacks at food stands with cannabis-infused edibles, in order to maximize profit? We wouldn’t be surprised if one of the other dozen or so aspirants to the office floats a similarly ridiculous idea.

We aren’t knocking the idea of legalizing marijuana products for recreational use; there is plenty of science and public support for this idea. And of course we should tax a pot brownie at a higher rate than that for traditional baked goods. Moreover, we all can agree that we need to invest more money in our subway system.

But to suggest that these things are connected in some tidy campaign–stump-speech talking point is an insult to voters’ intelligence. We all get it: Taxes come in. Elected officials decide where to spend that money. If they spend it unwisely, we complain, they adjust and democracy rolls on.

Furthermore, tying the tax revenue of marijuana sales to a dedicated subway fund is just bad policy. It will inevitably lead to “Get High to Help the 7 Train” campaigns (even if they aren’t supported by the government), which is not the goal. We don’t want more people using marijuana; we just don’t want people to go to jail for using it — in particular, young people of color, who are roughly eight times more likely to be locked up for marijuana possession than their white neighbors.

Tying social programs to vices is often fraught with problems. This practice has been in effect for years, with lottery revenues going to education funding — making people feel good about gambling their hard-earned cash. Sure, the lottery has provided billions of dollars to education in New York State over the years. But at the end of the day, it is just a tax shift onto those who like to try their luck with scratch-offs or Powerball tickets. The lottery doesn’t provide all of the funding, but just a small stream. Lawmakers adjust the budget numbers to make it work.

This will inevitably be the case for funding the MTA with pot taxes. The 2019 budget for the MTA is $16 billion, with roughly $8.45 billion of expenses going to the subways. Tax revenue from marijuana sales is estimated to be $436 million a year statewide, according to a May report by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

So, lawmakers and public advocates can earmark that pot money for subways all they want. Do what they may, it is just going to go into the larger mix.

We hope that as we get closer to the election in mid-February, these absurd ideas go up in smoke and the candidates talk about using the office the way it was intended — to be a voice for the people who are not being heard by this administration or the City Council.