Gov. Andrew Cuomo is giving the new mayor of New York City an elementary lesson in state politics: a governor with a 61-percent approval rating trumps a 41-percent election win any day, especially when the governor is Cuomo.
When the policy in dispute is about how to fund pre-kindergarten for all children, Cuomo holds all the political cards.
Mayor Bill de Blasio began the new year and his new job in January with a laser-like focus on paying for all-day pre-k—his signature campaign promise—by hiking taxes on city residents earning more than $500,000 a year. It was a bold, politically volatile move that was quickly short circuited by Gov. Cuomo’s generous counter proposal for a statewide program paid for out of the state’s coffers. Still, Mayor de Blasio continues to press state lawmakers to authorize a city-specific new tax. It will require the approval of both the state legislature and the governor in a year when both are up for reelection.
While the mayor’s goal is laudable, his rationale is as off as his timing.
Just about every municipality in New York State that could would jump at the chance to raise local taxes to offset the last several years of state funding cuts and to have the revenues to implement pet projects of their own. Yes, de Blasio is only asking to tax the rich, but income inequality isn’t peculiar to New York City.
The governor’s proposal treats all regions of the state equally, allocating $1.5 billion over five years for school districts to implement full-time universal prekindergarten programs without creating any new taxes.
The governor has also led by example. Whether you approve of his last three spending plans or not, you have to give Cuomo credit for helping the state emerge from a budget deficit to the point where he can project a small surplus. He has upheld his 2010 campaign promise not to raise taxes and now boasts “every New Yorker pays less in taxes than three years ago.”
Governor Cuomo is not philosophically opposed to taxing the wealthiest New Yorkers. His 2013-14 spending plan continued the personal income tax surcharge on those earning more than $1 million a year. But, he has aspirations to run for president, with a possible first bid in 2016. The bottom line is that the battle over who gets credit for funding pre-K isn’t about money; it’s about politics.
Mayor de Blasio is in a difficult spot politically and financially. While he says he wants the new tax to pay for pre-K, he also needs the revenue the tax would generate to help settle dozens of expired labor contracts in NYC, including agreements with unions representing the education, fire, police, sanitation and correction departments. Michael Bloomberg let every municipal labor contract expire during his term in office.
The city’s cash crunch is regrettable, but giving it taxing authority not enjoyed by the rest of the state would open the door to a flood of “me-too” requests from other mayors that could exacerbate existing inequities between localities.
If the mayor of Albany wants to tax her city’s top wage earners to convert the local high school into one of the governor’s pet smart schools, how could lawmakers say no? The mayor’s proposal also contradicts the intent of the state’s 2012 property tax cap law, which limits the amount cities and districts outside New York City can raise property taxes to cover school budgets.
The governor’s plan evens the playing field for school districts. In the process, he’s teaching de Blasio a valuable lesson about campaign promises: they are a lot like New Year’s resolutions—both take a lot of will power and most don’t survive beyond January.