On his first trip to Albany as mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio played up what he has in common with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and emphasized that he shares many of the goals that the governor laid out in the State of the State address.
Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, Cuomo’s hand-picked co-chair of the state Democratic Party, was singled out by the governor in Wednesday’s speech as a role model for her efforts to cut costs by sharing services with county government.
Yet both mayors, who took pains to praise Cuomo and his 2014 agenda, insisted that the governor alter course on key parts of that agenda.
De Blasio kicked off his post-address press conference by saying that he was “very, very appreciative” of many of the governor’s proposals, from improving mass transit to protecting women’s rights to fighting discrimination.
“There was a thread running through this entire speech connecting it to the historic progressive values of our state, and certainly of New York City,” de Blasio said. “There were so many important items in the governor’s speech, and I just am excited to get to work supporting this initiative and helping him to get it done.”
Where the two differ, and what has drawn the attention of political observers, is how to expand pre-kindergarten programs in New York City.
De Blasio campaigned on a tax hike for the wealthy to fund universal pre-kindergarten in New York City, and the governor has gotten behind the expansion plan, but he has indicated that he will be able to fund it statewide without any of the tax increases the mayor has called for.
“In 2013 in the State of the State, we called for expanded full-day pre-K,” the governor said on Wednesday, avoiding any mention of funding. “The Assembly has long championed the same. It’s time for New York State to have universal, full-day pre-K statewide.”
Yet de Blasio has not given up on his push for higher taxes, which would require permission from the state. On that issue, like others, de Blasio sought to highlight his agreement with Cuomo before insisting the city would “get it done with our own resources.”
“I think the state has a vision for the state, and I respect that vision,” de Blasio said. “We have a vision for our own city, and we simply want an acknowledgement of that so we can move forward.”
In upstate New York, the focus on taxes is on lowering them. Cuomo’s package of proposed tax cuts, based on recommendations from a commission headed by former state comptroller Carl McCall and former Gov. George Pataki, includes lower corporate taxes and a zero percent property tax rate for upstate manufacturers, measures a number of lawmakers said they would support.
Another element of the tax cut package is a two-year freeze on property taxes. In the first year, municipalities that have abided by the state’s optional 2 percent limit on property tax growth would be rewarded with a 2 percent tax credit for residents.
In the second year, a municipality would have to abide by the 2 percent cap and demonstrate concrete steps taken toward consolidating or sharing services with other local governments. According to the governor, the proliferation of governmental entities with taxing authority is a key factor behind the state’s record-high property taxes, and reducing their ranks or forcing them to share services would reduce costs. Although past efforts have had little success, Cuomo said that tying the push to financial incentives would prod more local governments into action, much like he tied funding to the implementation of teacher evaluations across the state.
“There is a ray of hope, because there are local leaders who are stepping up to the plate,” Cuomo said. “I’d like to take a moment to recognize the great Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney and the mayor of Syracuse, Stephanie Miner, who are working together to see if they can achieve consolidation and shared services between Onondaga County and the City of Syracuse. We wish them well, and we hope other leaders follow their example, because we think that’s exactly the right course.”
Syracuse and Onondaga County officials have commissioned a study to explore opportunities for shared services county-wide and region-wide in a “data-driven” way, Miner said. One goal is to put every government in the county on the same information technology system, and another possibility is combining all of the payroll services.
“And so what we can do to make sure that we all share that overhead, or we automate and use information technology to do that, we should,” she said. “We independently are moving forward to do that.”
But Miner said that the governor would be going too far in essentially penalizing counties for exceeding the 2 percent property tax cap that Cuomo championed in 2011. Local governments are exceeding the cap because of pensions and healthcare, which they have no control over, she added.
“You can’t simply say, you’ve got to live within the tax cap or else, because I have to pay my pension bills. I have to pay the healthcare bills. I have to provide police. I have to provide fire. I have to provide water pipes. I have to provide infrastructure,” Miner said. “We have shrunk and shrunk and shrunk and cut services back to the point now that you’re talking about real harm that is going to be visited upon the people of my city and the people of cities across New York State and across governments.”
The governor’s defense is that the state has already done all it can to help struggling municipalities. The state took over $1.2 billion in the growth of Medicaid. It is funding $700 million in aid to localities. The “Tier 6” pension reform will reduce costs in coming years. The Cuomo administration set up a financial restructuring board.
“We have a proliferation of government that is exceedingly expensive and costly,” Cuomo said. “Now, the state has been very aggressive in trying to alleviate the burden from local governments. We assumed more local costs than the state government has ever done in modern political history.”
Miner and other local officials around the state say those are steps in the right direction, but do not go far enough.
“You can’t say, we’ve done all we can, we can’t do anything more,” she said. “If you are pushing economic development and job creation in upstate New York, in particular, which I’m most familiar with, you’ve got to look at the nanotech providers or the genome people, and say, you’re going to get clean water, the snow’s going to be plowed, you’re going to drive on good streets, you’re going to have good schools, all of those are important services that form the bedrock of a quality of life that allows us to build an economic development model that works.”