Pre-K plan in jeopardy, de Blasio pushes forward
NEW YORK — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's signature proposal, a tax increase on the wealthy to pay for universal prekindergarten, appears to be on life support, blocked by a governor and state lawmakers who stubbornly oppose such a tax in an election year.
That hasn't stopped de Blasio from doggedly forging ahead anyway. He flatly rejected Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to pay for pre-K out of the state budget, saying that wouldn't provide reliable funding. And he's insisting on his plan to pay for it in the city with a tax on those making more than $500,000 a year.
Some observers believe de Blasio, who is required by state law to get Albany's approval for any such tax increase, 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.
Though Cuomo once mused that he'd offer de Blasio "a blank check" for pre-K, his preliminary budget directed far less money than the $340 million a year the mayor says it needs for 53,000 children this fall and 73,000 the next. If de Blasio can get the governor to increase his offer near that figure, the tax may have served its purpose even in defeat.
"Who is going to begrudge a mayor who says, 'I still prefer this via tax, but in 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, including a high-profile event Saturday with the Rev. Al Sharpton in Harlem. 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 enhanced power of a large mandate, and it sets up a possibility of national races down the line."
A former colleague who has talked 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."