Mayor de Blasio in the snow (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
The state Legislature is back in session, beginning the months-long process of deliberating on its $160-billion budget and legislation for the coming fiscal year that starts April 1. For New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a second-term Democrat, it poses the annual opportunity to lobby for the city’s priorities, including small and large policy changes and additional funding for city agencies.
De Blasio had mixed successes in the state capitol, where he has few allies, during his first term, and this year may present the most challenging fiscal situation since the mayor came to office given the new federal tax code, reductions in federal funding, and the $4.4 billion state budget gap that Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature must close.
Cuomo gave his State of the State address last week, where he released his 2018 policy agenda with de Blasio present in the audience. There was plenty for the mayor to chew on, both in the speech and the accompanying policy book that lays out a vast agenda, only some of which will actually be prioritized by the governor. Cuomo’s speech focused on women’s rights and anti-sexual harassment policies, criminal justice reforms, and the federal tax overhaul, which he has vowed to fight, first with a lawsuit. The governor also mentioned specific projects he intended to fund in the city, a continued focus on big infrastructure projects that largely involve the five boroughs, and the prospects of supporting needed subway upgrades through a yet-released congestion pricing scheme.
As part of the annual budget ritual, de Blasio will head to Albany later this month to testify hat-in-hand before a joint legislative hearing of Senate and Assembly leaders. This is expected to come after Cuomo outlines his executive budget plan on January 16 and before de Blasio releases his own preliminary budget for the city’s next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Both after attending Cuomo’s speech and in other venues, the mayor has spoken of the broad strokes of his Albany agenda. Among other things, he wants to see more funding for education, affordable housing, and mass transit. He hopes the Legislature will approve an expansion of speed cameras around public schools, new electoral and voting laws to expand ballot access and participation, and a repeal of a civil rights law that the city argues protects police officers’ disciplinary records from public disclosure.
The dynamics of the mayor’s negotiations with state government officials may prove slightly different this year, though it is unclear how things will play out. Cuomo must close the budget deficit while also reacting to the new federal tax code that is set to significantly increase the overall tax burden on many New Yorkers given the reduction in taxpayers’ ability to deduct their state and local taxes from their federal liability. The governor may seek to offload expenses to the city as he has done on multiple occasions. The mayor has few friends in the Republican-led state Senate, though he has allies in the Democrat and New York City-dominated Assembly.
De Blasio may have little to lose by standing up to a governor facing reelection this year and seeking to secure his left flank, or to a Senate GOP with a razor-thin majority that is under threat. The Trump administration also poses a common foe for the city and state, Democrats and Republicans, to do battle with, which could mean increased cooperation in certain areas.
When asked by a reporter at a January 5 news conference if his ability to negotiate with the governor had changed considering the political landscape of 2018, de Blasio mused that he felt “very liberated” but would continue to follow his first-term script. “Look, I think the simple way to think about this is not to look for too many tea leaves,” he said. “Always have said I’m ready to work with the governor when he proposes things that are good for New York City, and if he does something that is going to hurt the people of New York City, I’ll take him on. And that’s how I’m going to look at each and every issue. That is going to be unchanging.”
At time when the city has billions of dollars squirrelled away, and the state faces its shortfall, the governor’s representatives have repeatedly reference city reserves as ripe for picking. At a December 29 news conference, Gotham Gazette asked the mayor if he was taking preemptive actions to avoid the governor seeking to move costs to the city, as he most controversially did two years ago with CUNY and Medicaid in a move that was mostly beat back.
“You know, I’m hoping for a good faith situation where there’s a lot of communication and coordination,” de Blasio said. He warned that the biggest threat to the city was no longer an expected economic downturn but the federal tax plan, and that he would protect the city’s reserves. “And the notion that we have strong surpluses is not an open season call for New York State to raid New York City’s resources,” he said. “We need them because if anything goes wrong, if we sustain federal cuts we will also sustain state cuts...So, they can talk about it all they want, it’s not going to change my approach.”
The mayor is continuing his push for the state to fully abide by the state Supreme Court’s Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling requiring equitable state funding for public schools. Last year, the mayor estimated that the state was underfunding the city to the tune of about $1.6 billion.
More practically, a significant priority for the mayor is his proposed expansion of early childhood education to all three-year-olds in the city, building on his signature first-term accomplishment of implementing universal pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds. (The UPK program was put into effect largely with state funding, after the mayor’s calls to fund it through a tax on the wealthy were opposed by the governor and Senate GOP.)
The “3-K for All” program is set to expand to eight districts by 2021 and will cost the city roughly $177 million that year. The city already has another $200 million invested annually in the Early Learn program for three-year-olds from low-income families and a full-scale expansion of 3-K to all 32 school districts in the city would cost an additional $700 million sourced from federal and state coffers, according to city estimates.
“We want to continue the progress we’ve made in our public schools,” de Blasio said, at a news conference after the governor’s address. “We have our highest graduation rate ever. We’ve had continual progress on test-score improvement. We want to go farther. We need to see state education aid continue to expand. We particularly are interested in using that aid to address some key strategic initiatives, such as creating the 3-K program on a universal basis.”
Affordable Housing and Homelessness
The mayor’s affordable housing plan target, which he recently increased from 200,000 to 300,000 affordable rental units, relies on a multi-faceted approach to preserving existing units while creating more housing across the city. It also involves investing in public housing developments and supportive housing for formerly homeless, disabled, and mentally ill individuals.
De Blasio has continued to express frustration with the slow pace of funds being disbursed by the state despite numerous pledges made by the governor and the Legislature. He noted, for instance, funding promised toward the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) in the state budget from two years ago. “We’re still waiting to see some of that funding reach the people who live in public housing,” he said.
Freddi Goldstein, a spokesperson for the mayor on budgetary matters, did not have exact figures for the amount of aid the city is requesting on numerous fronts. On NYCHA funding, she emailed saying the mayor wants “to see the previously authorized moneys [sic] actually flow, rather than continue to be inexplicably held up. Though of course we’d also welcome more funding!”
De Blasio also noted that the city is already taking measures to create 15,000 units of supportive housing while the state has been lax in following up on its own promise to fund another 20,000 units. “We need to see that plan take off and start to have an impact on the ground in New York City so it can help us address homelessness,” he said. In total, the state allocated $2.5 billion in last year’s budget for affordable and supportive housing. It’s unclear, however, how much of that has been utilized and in the city.
During his State of the State, Cuomo indicated that the state will look to withhold funding from localities deemed to not be doing enough to get homeless people off the streets. It was not clear if he believes New York City fits that category. When asked about it, de Blasio dismissed the idea, saying that the city has the most robust street-outreach program it's ever had.
De Blasio and his allies failed to convince the Legislature last year to approve more speed cameras around public schools, a priority in his Vision Zero plan to eliminate traffic fatalities in the city. Vision Zero was continuously successful over the mayor’s first term and the administration announced on Monday that there were a total of 214 traffic fatalities in 2017, an all-time low.
The mayor has advocated for expanding the speed camera program from 140 school zones where it is currently active to 750 school zones citywide, citing a report that found, among other results, that crashes with injuries declined by 15 percent at camera locations between 2014 and 2016, and pedestrian injuries fell by 23 percent in the same time. Like on many fronts, the city needs Albany approval to act.
“We need to continue that progress,” the mayor said at the January 3 new conference, noting that the city was safer in 2017 than ever before. “One of the things that would help us the most, again, is those speed cameras around schools to help us protect kids and community members.”
In his budget testimony in Albany last year, de Blasio emphasized that giving New York City approval to use design-build -- which allows agencies to solicit combined design-and-construction bids for capital projects -- would save $450 million from $7.3 billion estimated for a specific list of projects. A bill passed by the state Assembly authorized design-build for eight projects, to save an estimated $158 million, according to Goldstein, the mayoral spokesperson.
The mayor reiterated on January 3 that design-build was essential for the city, particularly with the threat of federal budget cuts to city agencies and for infrastructure projects. “I think it becomes more important than ever,” he said. “This year, given that we will see tight fiscal conditions, design-build is a common sense way to help us save the taxpayers money, and get more done more quickly. So, we’ll be making that a top item on the agenda.”
The state has used design-build for several years on certain major projects and saved billions of dollars, according to Gov. Cuomo, who regularly touts the process as effective and inefficient. Cuomo has said he supports expanding it to city use, but it has not moved through the Senate.
De Blasio has faced strong criticism from police reform advocates over his administration’s shielding of the disciplinary records of police officers, particularly in the case of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose use of a department-prohibited chokehold led to the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner in 2014. Under de Blasio, the NYPD changed its policy of disclosing “personnel orders” containing summaries of disciplinary actions against an officer, insisting that they had mistakenly done so in violation of Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Code.
The mayor has instead put the onus on the Legislature to repeal the law. At a January 5 news conference releasing the latest crime statistics, de Blasio told Gotham Gazette it would be a priority for him this year. “I think this is the year. I’d love to see 50-a resolved once and for all,” he said, conceding that it might only happen if the state Senate, currently controlled by Republicans, flips to Democrat control. “But I think this is a powerful year to go and try and see if we can have a breakthrough. And there’s a lot of people in the state who think it’s the right thing to do to have that greater transparency. So we’ll be working for it.”
Governor Cuomo’s 2018 priorities include a “Democracy Agenda” of voting reform, political advertisement transparency, and election security initiatives. (He is also proposing a similar slate of campaign finance and government ethics reforms that he offered last year.) Though de Blasio had himself promised a major push on voting reform last year, his effort amounted to little more than a conference call with reporters. The mayor said he had to re-prioritize given the challenges of getting renewal of mayoral control of city schools approved.
This year, the mayor has promised to follow through, saying he was “heartened” to hear the governor address things like early voting in his speech. “We’re going to focus on it intensely, and we’re going to be organizing people all over New York City to put pressure on their legislators, on the Governor to get this done, and, obviously, working with allies all over the state,” de Blasio said.
The year begins with de Blasio and Cuomo arguing over whether the city will contrivute half the $800-plus million subway rescue plan put forward several months ago by MTA Chair Joe Lhota. De Blasio has insisted that the state use the nearly identifical amount it has raided from the MTA over the last few years. Cuomo and Lhota have told de Blasio to simply put up the money.
Meanwhile, one of the mayor’s priorities that seems least likely to succeed is a so-called millionaires tax to fund the MTA and subsidized MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers. The governor and Senate GOP, already averse to new taxes, have indicated that the proposal would be dead on arrival. But the mayor has only doubled down, reinvigorated in his effort by his reelection and the recently approved federal tax plan. “[G]iven that the Trump tax plan was a giveaway to the wealthy and corporations, I think it makes even more sense to have a millionaire’s tax,” he said on his weekly “Ask The Mayor” segment on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on January 5. Critics point out, though, that the wealthy in New York are not necessarily projected to make out very well under the new tax plan, unlike higher earners in other, low-tax states.
De Blasio has also repeatedly rejected congestion pricing as an alternative to raise revenue for the MTA while also reducing traffic congestion in Manhattan. Despite evidence to the contrary, he has insisted that it would be a “regressive tax” that harms outer borough commuters and that he has yet to see a proposal he could support. “The first concern I have is that I don’t think it is the best way to address the MTA crisis,” de Blasio told Lehrer. “I think a millionaire’s tax is a better way and it’s a live, actual proposal. You can see it. You can touch it.” Though Cuomo has floated the idea, he did not propose any details in his State of the State address last week, saying that a panel he formed will present options in the coming weeks.