New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
NEW YORK (USA TODAY) -- When he ran for mayor last year, Democrat Bill de Blasio
thrilled liberals when he promised universal pre-kindergarten funded by
taxing rich New Yorkers whose wealth skyrocketed under his billionaire
predecessor Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The idea encapsulated his campaign
theme - the fight against economic inequality - that is now being
adopted by the Democratic Party in races across the nation. And de
Blasio won by a landslide.
Now New York appears to be getting
universal preschool but not the tax. On Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Andrew
Cuomo did an end run around the mayor when he unveiled a state budget
that would fund full-day universal pre-K statewide, spending $1.5
billion over five years out of general funds. "The state will pay for
it, and the state will be proud to pay for it,'' Cuomo said.
news for four-year-olds and their parents; not so much for the city's
new mayor. The flght over how to fund preschool is putting de Blasio's
political mojo up against that of a governor looking to cruise to a
second term and perhaps beyond.
DeBlasio says his landslide in
November gave him a "mandate" for the tax increase, which must be
approved by the state. DeBlasio became the first Democrat to be elected
mayor since 1989, after triumphing over a more moderate candidate,
Council Speaker Christine Quinn, in a six-way Democratic primary, and
Republican Joe Lhota.
A tax to fund preschool "was arguably the
number-one proposal I put forward in an election I won with 73% of the
vote. I think the jury has come back,'' de Blasio said Tuesday in
response to Cuomo's proposal. "The people believe in this idea, they
want it, they want it to happen.'' A tax to fund preschool is more
"reliable" than annual state budget appropriations, he says.
before his inauguration, de Blasio had kicked off a "grassroots" public
relations campaign to press for universal pre-K. High-profile activists
for the universal pre-K plan include the Rev. Al Sharpton and Sex and the City
actress Cynthia Nixon. De Blasio also has a coalition of unions pushing
the state legislature on his behalf. His plan would enroll 50,000
children in full day preschool at a cost of $340 million annually,
financed by increasing the income tax rate by half a percentage point on
new Yorkers earning over half a million dollars annually.
got muscle because he won with an overwhelming majority of the voters,''
says Doug Muzzio. "He's got a bully pulpit with a huge megaphone.''
Losing the tax fight to Cuomo would be "certainly a loss of face'' for
de Blasio with his most liberal supporters.
But state approval for
a city tax hike does not appear to be forthcoming in an election year.
Cuomo's $138 billion budget increased funding for education and proposed
tax cuts of $2 billion. His preschool proposal allocates $100 million
in the first of five years for the entire state.
"Tax increases in
an election year are like asking to have your knees broken,'' says
Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. "It's good populist rhetoric, but
it's not the most realistic approach.''
preschool without a tax increase burnishes Cuomo's liberal credentials
while maintaining a fiscal conservatism that is important to upstate
Cuomo wants a landslide of his own, Muzzio says. "That is
good for him no matter what his future desires are, whether it's 2016
presidential, 2020 presidential, or a 2018 re reelection.'' A Siena
College poll released Monday gave Cuomo a 66% favorability rating.
having made no moves to indicate he would run, Cuomo is often included
on lists of potential 2016 presidential candidates thanks to New York's
size and fundraising pool, as well as his own famous name. His father,
three-term governor Mario Cuomo was sought after by Democrats to run in
1992 but passed.
De Blasio should declare victory and move on to
other campaign promises like increasing affordable housing, says New
York Democratic consultant George Arzt. "The governor is a master
politician. (De Blasio) knows that firsthand. Why not call it a
Fewer than half of the four year olds in New York, or
44%, attend pre-K, according to the National Institute on Early
Education research at Rutgers University. New York passed a law calling
for universal preschool in 1997, but has never fully funded it. Florida
has 79% of its four-year-olds in preschool, the highest in the U.S.
cities, including Seattle and San Antonio, have funded preschools
through taxes when state funding has lagged, says Steve Barnett, the
institute's director. Cuomo's $1.5 billion plan "is a proposal that
takes things in the right direction and has a long term vision. That
certainly is good news.''