New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio refused Tuesday to back down from his signature proposal to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund universal pre-kindergarten despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s inclusion of alternate funding for the program in the state budget.
De Blasio’s unwillingness to alter his plan, the centerpiece of his mayoral campaign and a favorite of the city’s liberal circles, sets up a seismic early term showdown with Cuomo, the state’s leading Democrat and the mayor’s former boss.
De Blasio repeatedly declared that he had a mandate for the plan, citing public opinion polls that favor the tax and his 49-point rout in November’s general election.
“It was arguably the number one proposal in an election that I won with 73% of the vote,” he said when asked by reporters about Cuomo’s plan at a City Hall news conference. “I think the jury is in. The people believe in this idea and they want it to actually happen.”
But de Blasio needs the state Legislature to sign off on raising taxes. And it may be more difficult for de Blasio to get lawmakers to approve a tax increase if they can point to an existing pot of state money now promised for pre-kindergarten.
The state’s political circles have been abuzz for weeks that Cuomo was going to propose his own universal pre-kindergarten plan that could steal de Blasio’s thunder.
Cuomo, who is facing re-election this fall and may be eyeing a White House bid, has been loath to raise taxes but played his cards close to the vest, offering support for the concept of universal pre-kindergarten while not discussing funding plans.
On Tuesday, he finally showed his hand.
“The state will pay for it and the state will be proud to pay for it,” Cuomo said in Albany. “Let’s put our money where our mouth is and let’s make it a reality.”
The state budget will set aside $1.5 billion to fund universal pre-kindergarten statewide. The funding for that plan, which would make New York the fourth state in the nation to have universal pre-kindergarten, will not be linked to a tax increase and falls short of what de Blasio has targeted for New York City.
The mayor wants to raise the income-tax rate on city residents making more than $500,000 to 4.41% from 3.88% for five years. That would raise $530 million per year, $340 million of which would annually go to fund the pre-kindergarten program. The remainder would be earmarked for after-school programs for middle school students.
Cuomo’s proposal would provide $100 million in state funds for the coming school year and then increase by $100 million in each subsequent year. The amount of the state funding, as well as concerns that it is not a dedicated stream and therefore could be diverted to other needs, worried de Blasio.
He called Cuomo’s plan “commendable” but said his own proposal would “create a stable, consistent reliable funding mechanism for the next five years.” After five years, de Blasio has said he hopes the tax would be made permanent or other resources would be found.
The clash shed light on the precarious relationship between Cuomo and de Blasio. De Blasio worked for Cuomo in the 1990s at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the men frequently tout their friendship though Cuomo only endorsed de Blasio in the mayor’s race after he emerged from the crowded Democratic primary field.
De Blasio’s plan has always been as much about taxing the rich as it is universal pre-kindergarten. He repeatedly linked the two as part of his campaign pledge to battle the city’s growing income equality gap.
“We think it’s fair and appropriate to ask those in New York City who have done well to do a little more,” said de Blasio, who to this point has refused to discuss using the tax hike to fund other projects beyond pre-kindergarten. He has been lobbying lawmakers for his plan.
The state proposal allows counties to opt-out of the funds. De Blasio suggested that he would prefer to use his tax hike to pay for pre-kindergarten and then utilize that state money for other needs.
“There are so many things we could do with additional state support,” he said. “If we know we have a reliable funding source for pre-k and after school, we should lock that in.”
The state budget will be finalized in April.