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In Albany, De Blasio Evaluates Cuomo’s Budget, Faces Legislators’ Questions


de Blasio albany budget testimony 2017

Mayor de Blasio in Albany (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor’s Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Albany Monday for his annual budget testimony in front of the joint budget committee of the state Senate and Assembly. In opening remarks, de Blasio touted some of his accomplishments and gave his on-the-record response to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recently-released executive budget plan in terms of what it means for New York City and his own agenda. The mayor then fielded hours of questions from state legislators that often veered far from strict budget matters and went into how he is running city government and his policies.

Over the course of more than three hours, de Blasio was asked about a wide variety of topics by senators and Assembly members from both parties, engaging in mostly collegial back-and-forth that on a few occasions flared into contentiousness. A few topics, including an imminent city fee on plastic and paper grocery bags and the city’s child welfare agency, were asked about by multiple legislators, but there was no clear theme to the questioning like there was last year, when many pressed de Blasio on property taxes.

For his part, the mayor appeared mostly concerned with Cuomo’s new 421-a program, which aims to revive a property tax break meant to spur affordable housing development, and a variety of proposed funding cuts to the city that the governor outlined. As is often the case when he testiies in front of the state legislator, de Blasio was also engaged in fending off criticism from multiple avenues and attempting to finish his testimony as unscathed as possible.

The mayor, a Democrat now in the final year of his first term, opened his budget testimony on a conciliatory note, thanking the leadership in both chambers, and emphasizing that the interests of New York City and the rest of the state are intertwined.

“We see our role as continuing to be an economic engine for the state as a whole and for the region,” de Blasio said. “And obviously, we are the state’s primary gateway to the rest of the world and we know we have to play that role well. I also think it’s fair to say that New York State succeeds when New York City succeeds, and New York City succeeds when New York State succeeds. It’s a truly symbiotic relationship.”

He touted several accomplishments, including the development and preservation of 62,000 units of affordable housing -- part of the city’s plan to create or preserve 200,000 affordable apartments over 10 years -- dipping crime rates, higher graduation rates and test scores at public schools, and the city’s rollout of universal pre-kindergarten, which is largely funded through the state budget, he noted.

“Now, 70,000 four-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K, and we’re making sure that that investment pays off. Again, I want to offer my profound thanks on behalf of the parents of the City of New York for your support in allowing us to achieve this success,” de Blasio told about 25 legislators seated on a two-tiered dais.

New York City will need the state’s support to continue to build on its successes, de Blasio said, while acknowledging that the city still has much work to do and specifically citing homelessness as an area in need of improvement. De Blasio again promised a new homelessness-fighting plan in February, and even said that it will include a better method of community outreach in siting shelters.

Addressing the state budget, de Blasio had less to complain about this year than last -- in 2016, the the city faced nearly $1 billion in shifted costs under the governor’s initial budget proposal -- but he raised several concerns about the governor’s new 421-a plan, as well as multi-million dollar cost shifts on pre-K, charter schools, healthcare funding, and more.

The mayor praised elements of Cuomo’s budget, particularly the governor’s plan to provide tuition-free city and state college to middle class New Yorkers, a proposed three-year extension of mayoral control of New York City schools, election reforms, various criminal justice reforms, and state coverage of increased Medicaid costs.

De Blasio also sounded the alarm on threats from the Trump administration, stressing the urgency in securing public health funds and passing legislation to protect the environment. He cited Trump’s plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which he said currently covers 1.6 million New York City residents. Up to 200,000 public hospital patients could lose their insurance, endangering their health, and also potentially costing the public hospital system hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, according to de Blasio.

“So, we are quite clear that any actions taken in Washington could create real pain for both state and city government,” said de Blasio. “That’s why it’s so important that we ask your support in making sure that the state budget insulates and protects local governments and our work given these great uncertainties.”

Some of de Blasio’s comments came in contrast, to an extent, to his own preliminary budget, which the mayor released last week. In that spending plan, de Blasio made no “Trump-specific adjustment,” he said, because it was too early to tell what the new president may do on policy and budgeting.

While Cuomo’s executive budget will not be passed through the Legislature without changes, New York City would see a “net positive impact” of $279 million for the coming fiscal year, according to the financial plan. Though Cuomo’s proposal does include some smaller cost-shifts to the city, the budget stays away from the nearly $1 billion in CUNY and Medicaid cost-shifts to the city the governor had proposed last year, which were ultimately beaten back by de Blasio and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat and the mayor’s most important ally in the capital.

On Cuomo’s rebranded 421-a, called Affordable New York, de Blasio said that it would cost the city too much in foregone property tax revenue per unit of affordable housing. The mayor wants tweaks made to the proposal before it is passed, and also said that one tweak he does not want to see made to it is the re-inclusion of luxury condominiums. The program, which the de Blasio administration says is essential to building mixed-income apartment buildings in the city’s most desirable neighborhoods, was at the center of the falling out between de Blasio and Cuomo and will apparently become a contentious issue over the course of budget negotiations.

During the question-and-answer session of de Blasio’s Monday testimony, about 15 lawmakers asked the mayor dozens of questions in two-to-three minute segments.

Several Republican lawmakers pressed the mayor on how education funding is distributed, the hotly contested bag fee, and the city’s Administration of Children’s Services (ACS), which has been criticized of late for several high-profile and tragic child fatalities.

The most contentious moments of the Q-and-A came in exchanges between de Blasio and Senators Catharine Young, Simcha Felder, and Terrence Murphy, all of whom are part of the Republican majority caucus in the Senate.

Murphy, who has long-standing conflict with de Blasio after the mayor attempted to help unseat him in 2014, was the lone legislator to bring up the law enforcement investigations into the mayor and his allies. The two talked over each other at times, with Murphy saying de Blasio is untrustworthy and de Blasio claiming Murphy clearly “has a bone to pick.”

Young represents Chautauqua and Allegany Counties, chairs the Senate finance committee and co-chaired the budget hearing. She challenged de Blasio on how education funding is distributed to city schools and suggested the state should withhold funding from ACS. The ACS commissioner resigned amid criticism that recent tragedies could have been prevented by the child welfare agency, and de Blasio announced Monday that a new commissioner would be in place by early March.

The mayor defended the work of the child welfare agency, noting that it sees 50,000 to 60,000 complaints of child neglect or abuse per year, and in an overwhelming majority of cases, the agency helps children and families. He noted that sometimes courts stand in the way of a child’s removal from a troubled home. De Blasio found support from Senator Diane Savino, who is a former child protective specialist, acknowledged improvements at ACS, and said she is drafting legislation to relieve child protective workers of some of the administrative burdens of their work.

Young also pushed the mayor on property tax reform, which dominated last year’s hearing. While de Blasio has not raised property tax rates, property taxes have continued to rise quickly under this mayor because of increased property value assessments. Republican lawmakers have been pushing for both a general restructuring of the city’s property tax system, which de Blasio has regularly said is coming eventually, and a cap on city property tax growth. De Blasio and Assembly Democrats have refused such a cap, explaining that the city relies on tax revenue to fuel its $80-plus billion budget.

Senator Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat that caucuses with Republicans, expressed outrage over the so-called “plastic bag tax,” a 5 cent surcharge on paper and plastic bags to discourage use, reduce waste, and improve the environment.

“I fundamentally disagree that this issue isn’t urgent to address, in terms of climate change,” the mayor said. “It’s going to have devastating impacts if we don’t address it on all levels. We have even more urgency because we don’t know whether the federal government is going to take a step back on climate change.”

Felder and several Republican lawmakers chimed in, insisting that their objection to the fee was not an objection to the validity of environmental science.

“New Yorkers are sick of being insulted and lied to,” Felder said, raising his voice. “It has nothing to do with whether people do or don’t care about the environment. The issue is whether we have to be punitive. If government doesn't have a way to fix something, no problem -- tax! No problem -- ticket! No problem -- fee!”

With the bag fee about to go into effect in mid-February, the state Legislature is considering legislation to overrule and negate the city’s law. A bill passed the Senate, and the Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, may take it up.

Many Democrats positioned themselves as allies of the mayor on Monday, including Assemblymember Catherine Nolan, the Assembly’s education committee chair, who asked about Foundation Aid and the failure of the state to make due on the Campaign for Fiscal Equality, a decade-old court ruling that was supposed to ensure a basic quality education to all public school students and the requisite funding. Framing it in terms of her experience as a public school parent and de Blasio’s as a former public school parent, she asked, “Do you think we were duped into thinking that we would all benefit from a full CFE?”

“It cannot be airbrushed out of history, our children have suffered from the lack of state funding,” de Blasio agreed.

Democratic Senator Liz Krueger helped defend de Blasio on a variety of issues, including his support for a “mansion tax,” which would add a surcharge to apartments sold for over $2 million.

Senator Daniel Squadron, a Democrat representing Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, took on a more contentious tone with de Blasio, however, renewing his previous calls for the mayor to sue the bad actors involved in the flipping of Rivington House, the former nursing that is becoming luxury housing. De Blasio said that the city had explored its options, but did not believe that it had a case to bring suit. He promised that his administration would talk more with Squadron about anything that can be done.

Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican representing Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, commended the mayor for investing in NYPD equipment, before challenging de Blasio on his vow to defy Trump’s immigration ban. The Assemblymember, a frequent critic of the mayor, argued that the city’s list of 170 offenses that would warrant cooperation with federal immigration agents was insufficient. Noting that the city has only complied with 32 out of 584 deportation requests from federal immigration enforcement agencies, she asked, “Why would you protect individuals who are here illegally who are committing these crimes instead of putting your citizenry first and foremost and ensuring that we receive the federal funding that we need for law enforcement to do its job?”

“Assemblymember, I know you are a true believer in your ideology and I am in mine,” de Blasio replied. “And we have very different facts. We are going disagree even on the premise of the question.”

He reiterated that his administration was more concerned that low level, nonviolent offenses like marijuana possession would be used as an excuse for deportation, stressing that conforming to Trump’s anti-immigrant policies would make undocumented immigrants unwilling to speak to police, which would put the city at risk. However, he conceded, “If there are some offenses we should add [to the list of 170], we are willing to do that always.”

The exchange with Malliotakis was indicative of most that de Blasio had on Monday: he pushed back on legislators’ wording, premises, and data, but did so with some semblance of willingness to communicate further and collaborate where possible. The question then becomes, of course, whether de Blasio does indeed intend to communicate and collaborate more, or whether he was attempting to diffuse criticism at such a rare and public hearing.

After his appearance, de Blasio refused to answer questions from members of the media. While he had done so prior years after his budget testimony, this year the mayor ignored reporters who attempted to ask him questions as he walked the halls of the Legislative Office Building, engaged in conversation with a member of the Assembly.

De Blasio had meetings scheduled Monday afternoon with Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein, and Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. The mayor was not set to meet with Cuomo, despite the rare occurrence that both were in Albany on the same day.

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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