De Blasio Takes Pre-K Tax Plan to Albany

ALBANY (Bloomberg) -

Mayor Bill de Blasio says he can get enough teachers and classrooms to put two-thirds of New York City’s 4-year-olds in school by September. In Albany Monday, he tried to persuade Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers to back the tax on the wealthy he says he needs.

The mayor, who won office in November on a promise to raise taxes on the rich to provide pre-kindergarten across the city, outlined his plan during more than two hours of testimony before lawmakers. He lauded Cuomo’s budget, which provides funding for pre-K statewide while cutting taxes by $2.2 billion, while calling it insufficient to fund his program.

“There are some who say that Albany shouldn’t approve our plan because the state government simply cannot raise any taxes right now,” said de Blasio. “We’re not asking Albany to raise the state income tax by a single penny … We’re simply asking Albany to allow New York City to tax itself.”

The state’s two most visible leaders are vying for influence in a divided legislature, which holds the power to determine which program prevails. The Democrats, friends for 20 years, have each put forward a five-year plan for pre-K, while differing on how to pay for it. Cuomo’s would cost $2.2 billion statewide; de Blasio’s $2.5 billion just for the city and would include after-school programs.

In New York, the legislature and governor control most local levies, including income taxes.

Cuomo has proposed using general funds to expand pre-K statewide. New York City Democrats are seeking to capitalize on an election-year wave that carried de Blasio to the biggest victory for a non-incumbent in city history for a tax increase.

“Dedicated and reliable funding,” not lack of space or personnel, remains the obstacle to providing pre-K to 53,604 children by the start of the next school year and to 73,250 by 2015, according to the mayor’s office.

Full-day pre-K would reach all 4-year-olds by using half the almost 4,000 classrooms identified by officials as “potentially available” within public school buildings, in addition to community-based organizations, according to a report de Blasio released before his testimony. It pegs the average cost at $10,239 per child, or $340 million annually, including for expansion and operational costs. It earmarks almost $100 million for start-up costs.

Funding from the tax increase would be prevented from being spent on anything other than pre-K and after-school programs, such as new labor contracts with 300,000 city workers, de Blasio said. And in a shift from the tone he took during his campaign, he said he’d be open to allow charters to offer pre-K, as Cuomo calls for.

Sheldon Silver, the Manhattan Democrat who leads the assembly, said a combination of tax increases and state funding may be needed. State Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat who co-leads the chamber, has swung his full support behind de Blasio’s tax increase. His counterpart, state Sen. Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, favors universal pre-K, though he generally opposes raising taxes.