When former New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky stepped down to make an unsuccessful run to become attorney general, observers wondered who would be the next chairman of the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions that the Westchester County Democrat had used as bully pulpit for eight years.
After nearly three decades of serving on the committee, its new chair, Assemblyman James Brennan, D-Brooklyn, is ready to put his stamp on it. “I’m not as flamboyant as Mr. Brodsky, but I’ve been on the committee for 27 years,” he said.
Brodsky burnished his reputation through tough cross examinations of public authority officials and private figures, including belligerent exchanges with New York Yankees president Randy Levine at a hearing over the use of tax-exempt bonds to build the new Yankee stadium.
Before his election to the Assembly in 1984, Brennan worked for his predecessor in the Assembly, Joseph Ferris, as a utilities regulation lawyer. “I’m pretty familiar with all the issues, and I’m probably just about as liberal as Mr. Brodsky,” he said.
Elizabeth Lynam, director of state studies at the watchdog group Citizens Budget Commission said Brennan has championed greater transparency on member items and how much they cost the public.
“He’s an independent thinker and I think his appointment is promising,” she said. “He does have big shoes to fill because Assemblyman Brodsky was very successful using that committee as a bully pulpit to usher in a series of public authority reforms.”
Brennan is now preparing for his first hearing this spring on the cash-strapped New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “I’m a devoted supporter of mass transit because it’s the backbone of the metropolitan area,” he said. “The MTA’s got major capital budget shortfalls going forward which we’re probably not going to deal with right now.”
The agency’s $26.27 billion, five-year capital plan is only funded for capital commitments made in 2010 and 2011, leaving a $9.9 billion gap. “The governor is going to need to show some leadership in addressing this problem,” Brennan said.
The bursting real estate bubble has been painful for the MTA which received $1.6 billion of dedicated real-estate taxes in 2007. Those taxes are projected to bring in just $499 million for the authority in 2011.
“Real estate transactions have proven to be too volatile a financing source for them and they’re going to need something going forward that’s more stable,” he said.
Brennan was a supporter of congestion pricing, a proposal that never made it to a vote that would have charged fees on vehicles driving in much of Manhattan to support MTA bonds.
The Public Authorities Reform Act of 2009, a signature effort by Brodsky, created a new independent Authorities Budget Office, established more reporting requirements for public authorities and gave board members an explicit fiduciary duty.
Though the heavy lifting of getting public authority reform legislation enacted has been accomplished, there is still “an enormous amount to be done, including the implementation of the reforms,” said Brodsky, who is about join New York University as a senior fellow looking at how capital moves between the public and private sector. “Jim’s very smart, very capable, gets the depth and complexities of the issues,” Brodsky said.
Brennan’s agenda also includes looking at how public authorities across the state respond to the new statutes and the proliferation of local development corporations. He said he expects to introduce legislation to curb the use of eminent domain.
“There are a lot of people who think that the standards currently in practice in New York for what blight is are too loose and give the government too much leeway in relation to taking private property, and I tend to agree,” he said. “We need some greater scrutiny of the circumstances under which private property is taken for economic development.”