Mayor Bill de Blasio’s fellow Democrats in control of the state Assembly were poised to grant New York City authority to raise taxes on its wealthiest residents to pay for full-day pre-kindergarten — though the funding proposal still faced major hurdles at the state Capitol.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said Monday evening his house’s budget proposal will include a provision giving the city the taxing authority de Blasio is seeking, even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo repeated his promise to give the city a “blank check” for the program so they would not have to raise taxes.
Separate budget proposals from the Democrat-controlled Assembly and the Senate’s majority coalition of Republicans and Democrats are expected later this week. Negotiations including the governor’s office will follow. A final budget is due before the new fiscal year starts April 1.
Approval by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature would be needed for the city to tax its residents earning $500,000 or more to fund citywide pre-K. Cuomo and Republican Senate leaders oppose the tax increase and the governor has said statewide pre-K should be funded through existing funds.
De Blasio, in an MSNBC interview Monday, said for the first time that he was open to an alternative source, but wants a “verifiable” city funding stream for $530 million annually for five years and he hasn’t seen it yet. Meanwhile, his wife, Chirlane McCray, postponed a scheduled Tuesday visit to Albany to lobby for his pre-K plan.
Cuomo, interviewed later on WNYC radio, said the state will fund pre-K, and once established it will be practically impossible to close the new grade. A state budget law would be as permanent as a tax law, which could also be changed, he said, noting he and lawmakers previously extended the state income tax surcharge on high earners.
“We’re going to have a statewide pre-K program funded by the state. That’s what we said we’re going to do and that’s what we’re going to do,” Cuomo said. “I said all along that we’ll fund the need. … And as quickly as cities can bring it online, we will fund it.”
His proposed budget has $1.5 billion allocated for the program, Cuomo said. “The numbers are flexible; the commitment is not. … The real certitude is it would be practically impossible to begin funding a grade and then the next year say, ‘Johnny has to stay home this year because we’re not funding the class.’”
While de Blasio’s signature proposal appears to most observers to be dead, that hasn’t stopped him from doggedly forging ahead anyway. Some believe de Blasio could be boxing himself into a corner. By clinging to the tax for so long, he’s made it difficult to claim a political win if prekindergarten is funded by any other means.
But others believe de Blasio, surrounding himself with allies ranging from union bosses to civil rights leaders, is playing a more complicated political game.
On one hand, he is appeasing the liberal Democratic base that elected him in November by championing the tax hike, an idea popular in the city’s far left circles. And on the other, by pushing for the tax until the end, even if it is doomed, he could pressure Cuomo to increase the amount of money he will send to New York City to set up the pre-K program.
“Who is going to begrudge a mayor who says, ‘I still prefer this via tax, but in the interest of these kids, I will go forward?’” asked Jeanne Zaino, political science professor at Iona College. “That’s still a really good way out of it.”
Many of de Blasio’s recent prekindergarten campaigning has come in minority communities, often with religious leaders alongside. That is unlikely to go unnoticed in Albany, where Cuomo saw his support slip among black and Latinos in a poll released this week.
The governor is up for re-election this fall and experts believe that is fueling his recent efforts to stymie de Blasio, a fellow Democrat with whom he has been friends for 20 years.
Cuomo has dismissed de Blasio’s calls to raise the minimum wage in New York City, stood with charter school leaders that de Blasio blocked from using space in public schools and suggested that allowing de Blasio to raise taxes in New York City to fund prekindergarten is unfair to other municipalities that don’t have a tax base that features millionaires.
The moves have helped Cuomo position himself as a moderate, which could play in the state’s more conservative upstate regions and the moderate suburbs of New York City, which produced his Republican rival, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino.
“Cuomo is going to run a campaign that is going to maximize his margin of victory and distribute it across the state,” said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. “It helps him govern the state of New York due to the enhanced power of a large mandate, and it sets up a possibility of national races down the line.”
A former colleague who has spoken with both men and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the discussions said Cuomo was “shocked that Bill continued to act like he’s trying to win a liberal primary.”
“Cuomo has appealed to Bill repeatedly to work on a compromise,” said the former colleague. “But de Blasio insists that he’s comfortable with his positioning and wants to play it out.”
De Blasio, the first Democrat elected mayor in 20 years, has relished being an unofficial spokesman for a seemingly ascendant liberal portion of the party and may not want to appear willing to compromise on one of his key proposals in his fight on income inequality.
“De Blasio is clearly ideological, and he wants to represent the liberal progressive wing of the Democratic Party,” Zaino said. “He doesn’t want to move into more moderate territory where Andrew Cuomo exists.”
Many pundits believe a compromise will be reached that will allow the two rivals to each claim victory. While de Blasio’s schedule is still full of events about prekindergarten, he has recently spoken far more about the need for the program itself, and how it could help level the playing field for all children, rather than the specific need for a tax to pay for it.
“Both guys are using each other to score points with people they need them to score,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. “Andrew Cuomo is in an election year and is playing for big numbers. And people understand that de Blasio doesn’t have control here. He’s doing everything he can to keep the promises he made to get elected.”
“And he doesn’t face voters again for three years.”