De Blasio’s tax hits the Capitol wall

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Bill de Blasio. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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ALBANY—Bill de Blasio's bid to raise income taxes on the wealthy to pay for universal pre-kindergarten is dead, a top legislative leader declared Monday morning.

The pronouncement by Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos was met with energetic rage by de Blasio's allies, including major labor groups, and a statement from the mayor that Skelos' declaration was “just plain wrong.”

But the state's top Democrat, tellingly, was silent.

For Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is running for re-election and effectively headed off de Blasio's planned tax hike by offering to fund school programs without raising taxes, this was a positive result. A liberal program he opposed had been stalled, and, officially, he wasn't the one who stalled it: It was a Republican from Nassau County who did so, by declaring he would not assent to a floor vote on a tax that requires his chamber's approval. 

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Here was the New York City mayor's official introduction to the Albany dynamic, which he'll no doubt be coming across with some regularity over the course of his first term. 

Popular support for the high-earner tax in the city, shown in de Blasio's election and subsequent polls, will apparently turn out to have been no match for the will of the Republican co-leader of a cobbled-together Senate majority. De Blasio's experienced political operation doesn't seem to matter much, either; organizing is great, but at the Capitol, the flow of legislation is tightly controlled by the majority leaders in each chamber. They are rarely bested by their members, or a popular groundswell, and if they are, it is reactive—not pre-emptive. There are four men in the room at the moment who decide what gets done, and de Blasio is not one of them.

“He's quickly learning what Mike Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani and everyone before him learned: you can be mayor of the biggest city in the state but still have no say about what happens in Albany,” said David Catalfamo, an adviser to former Governor George Pataki who now works as a lobbyist and political consultant.

So the question for de Blasio is, where do those four men stand? Skelos offered a firm no, saying New York City can't afford to raise taxes. Cuomo is publicly emphasizing his friendly relations with de Blasio, but won't lift a finger to help him, and has made it clear he doesn't want the tax.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a liberal Democrat from the Lower East Side, aligned himself with de Blasio in December, but has treated Cuomo's proposal with similar weight in the context of ongoing budget negotiations.

“I’ve been working on pre-K with our conference for the past 20 years,” Silver, a Democrat from lower Manhattan, told reporters. “The governor put forth a viable option in his budget. I don’t understand why Senator Skelos would remove a viable option from the table at this stage of the budget discussion.”

The key here is the mention of budget negotiations. While it's hard to move the needle on something as binary as a vote on the tax hike, the kind of pressure that advocacy groups like SEIU 1199 can bring often shifts funding parameters. Reading between the lines of the official comments, it's clear that de Blasio's best-case scenario now will be some middle ground between his plan and Cuomo's, which offered $1.5 billion for pre-K programs around the state over the next five years—a billion less than de Blasio wanted for just the five boroughs.

State Senator Jeff Klein, leader of the chamber's Independent Democratic Conference, has supported de Blasio's tax plan, and was among the officials and advocates who raged against Skelos' declaration. But in a written statement threatening to stall the state budget, he was careful to set the goal posts in terms of dollars, not the tax increase.

"I will not approve a budget that fails to realize the vision Mayor de Blasio and I share of providing high-quality, universal pre-k to the 50,000 four year olds who need it,” Klein stated. “Mayor de Blasio's plan is the only one that provides New York City with the funding it needs to achieve that goal. Senate Republicans comprise a minority in this chamber--they want more support for business tax cuts and we want more support for our kids. Only by working together can we achieve a balance that works for everyone."

It sounds like a clear threat, but Klein has sent earlier signals that he would settle for some middle-ground solution. Severability is more than just a legal concept in Albany—it applies to public statements as well. And even de Blasio, during his first lobbying trip to the Capitol, acted like he was ready to be a willing player in the Albany game.

Just not yet. The budget deadline is April 1, and de Blasio's supporters are planning a major rally in the middle of next month. Progressive groups will keep upping the pressure to get the best deal possible, and de Blasio will stand beside them for as long as it remains good outside politics to do so.

“That might even the ballgame,” Catalfamo said. “But I still think it's impossible for him to get it done in this environment: there's just no way that the Senate's going to go for a tax increase, and I don't see the governor doing it either. Not this year.”