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Another State of the City

by Courtney Gross, Feb 17, 2009
 

Council Speaker Christine Quinn, quite out of character, took two approaches differing from the Bloomberg administration last week.

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First, she led the council in overriding a mayoral veto of residency requirements for the city's largest municipal workers union. A day after, Quinn announced a plan to solve the city's fiscal woes: increase income taxes for the richest New Yorkers.

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The proposal puts the speaker at odds with her governing partner, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in his preliminary budget suggested the city increase and broaden the city sales tax to close a $4 billion deficit.

So far, it seems Quinn has a more crowded corner.

For the past three budget cycles, the mayor and the speaker have had relatively mild-mannered -- even affable -- budget negotiations. With about five months to go in the negotiation process, they are already at odds.

A Different Proposal

This is not the first time Quinn has been praised for a proposal in her State of the City address. In 2007, the speaker suggested a renter's tax rebate, saying it would be her top priority. That never went anywhere.

Sometimes promises go unfilled. But, unlike the break for renters, Quinn's personal income tax proposal is not a supplement to the mayor's plan, but an alternative.

Already it's picking up supporters and steam.

For one, the mayor praised her for having a concrete proposal (even though a similar bill, introduced by Assemblymember Eric Schneiderman, has been floating around Albany).

"She’s got actual proposals, some of which we’ll agree with, some of which we won’t," said Bloomberg on his weekly radio show Friday . "We’ll work together on all of the different things, and I don’t know how it comes. We don’t have to make those kinds of decisions for the city for another few months."

Specifically, the proposal would eliminate the city's personal income tax for those with household incomes under $46,000, saving about $321 per household. The tax would be increased in stages for higher income earners. Those households with incomes between $297,000 and $532,000 would see their personal income tax rate increase from 3.648 percent to 4.25 percent, adding another $374 onto their bills.

Those making between $532,000 and $1.2 million would see their tax rate increase from 3.648 percent to 4.45 percent, translating to about $5,571. For those making more than $1.2 million, they would see their rate go up to 4.65 percent at the average cost of approximately $19,066.

Quinn said the proposal was drafted with the help of Councilmember David Yassky, a comptroller candidate, and the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy .

The Likely Scenario

The tax increases would generate about a $1 billion in revenue, as would the mayor's proposal to increase the sales tax by 0.25 percent and apply it to traditionally exempt items, like haircuts or movie tickets.

Both would need approval from Albany.

It will likely be one proposal or the other, not necessarily both.

For weeks, council members have criticized the mayor's January budget proposal, calling it regressive. On Thursday, the speaker seemed to say, for the first time publicly, it wouldn't go anywhere.

"If we want to encourage New Yorkers to shop locally, we simply can’t afford to raise the sales tax,” Quinn said. “We’re simply not going to balance the budget by squeezing local merchants and shoppers.”

Many advocates and officials had a far more positive reaction to Quinn's personal income tax proposal than to the mayor's sales tax suggestion.

In a prepared statement released after the speaker's address, Jennifer March Joly, executive director of Citizens' Committee for Children of New York, said: “Speaker Quinn is right. Raising income taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers is a better way of tackling New York City’s deficit than asking low-income and middle-class families to pay more in the form of higher sales taxes on everything from footwear to clothing. And we support increased tax relief for working poor families.”

That reaction was echoed elsewhere.

"At a time when our city and state are in a financial crisis, we can't continue to put further burdens on... lower wages and keep ignoring the high-end wages," said Councilmember Miguel Martinez of Manhattan.

Whether this is a serious indication that this year's budget negotiations will be more contentious, most say it's too early to tell. But others, even those who have been in the same shoes, say this proposal is one example of Quinn standing up against the executive.

"I find Chris Quinn to be someone who speaks her mind," said the former Council Speaker Gifford Miller, following her state of the city. "I think she was speaking her mind now."

The bottom line for officials is closing the city's projected $4 billion budget gap. Though the city has been promised funding in the Obama administration's federal stimulus package, it is unclear how much. Even with that funding, the city will still have to make some tough choices.

"I think we need to keep all of our options open, because a lot of it is out of our control," said Finance Committee Chairman David Weprin, who thinks the difference between the two proposals is ultimately a philosophical one. "We need a menu of options to go to Albany with."


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