Last week New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio traveled to Albany to make the case for his universal preschool program in front of the state Assembly Ways and Means and the Senate Finance committees. De Blasio, who campaigned on providing full-day preschool for all four year olds, as well as after school programs for every middle school student, has ramped up his campaign for the effort, which would be paid for through a temporary tax hike on the city’s high-income earners. The common perception is that the tax hike would be a deal breaker for the Legislature, specifically for Senate Republicans, and notably Gov. Andrew Cuomo has indicated his reluctance to raise taxes during an election year.
Still, de Blasio delivered his testimony in his deliberate, measured style, making a multi-pronged argument as to the critical importance of finding a dedicated funding source for the program—and in doing so, reached back in history to point to an initiative by his former boss, David Dinkins, that required significant cooperation from Albany.
“Let me remind you that the Legislature has taken this kind of action before, and not so very long ago,” de Blasio said in his testimony. “In the early 1990s, you gave New York City authority to levy a temporary, dedicated income tax surcharge that funded the Dinkins administration’s “Safe Streets, Safe City” program. Doing that allowed us to hire thousands of new police officers. It began the historic, ongoing reduction of crime in our city … Now you can help us make history again.”
Both Dinkins’ Safe Streets program and de Blasio’s universal preschool initiative were born out of a new mayor’s sense of urgency.
Dinkins took office at the height of New York City’s crack epidemic, which, coupled with the homicide rate’s meteoric rise, created a desperate need for more police officers. De Blasio campaigned heavily on ending the “Tale of Two Cities”—a metaphor for the city’s growing economic and social gap—and doubled down on universal preschool as the foundation for establishing young children on the path to success.
“In some ways he’s taking a page from history then, and saying that now that crime is down, there’s really a need for focusing on education,” said Harvey Robins, the former director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations under Dinkins. “He’s pairing the two.”
Where de Blasio also seems to be taking a page out of the Dinkins playbook is in organizing a broad coalition to create outside pressure on the Legislature to bend it to grant his proposed tax hike, combining his lobbying with support from the City Council. The mayor was joined in Albany last week by an delegation of Council members, including Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who advocated for de Blasio’s universal preschool program to the same committees the mayor spoke to hours before.
Every Dinkins administration staffer interviewed for this story said that the former mayor could not have gotten his dedicated tax hike through without the help of former Council Speaker Peter Vallone, whose Rolodex was thick with Albany connections that the mayor did not yet have. In fact, it was Vallone who first suggested to Dinkins that the city make a strong push to hire more police officers in the wake of several high-profile murders on the city’s subway.
“[The city] had not only no money, but we had no cops,” Vallone recalled. “We were down to about 25,000 cops and getting lower and lower as it goes.”
Vallone took stock of the city’s desperate fiscal situation, and resorted to making deep cuts to the mayor’s budget in order to find the funds to help fortify the city’s police force.
“I convinced [Dinkins] that he had to come to Albany with me or I would slash every part of the mayor’s budget, including corporation counsel, anything that the mayor wanted, I would slash to take the monies that we needed to get the cops,” Vallone said. “Instead of doing that, he came to Albany with me.”
Together Vallone and Dinkins worked the Legislature, proposing a wide range of different tax hikes to pay for the additional cops first pushing for a raise to the property tax, and when that proved impossible to pass, they floated a raise to the payroll tax. Eventually, the Dinkins-Vallone team settled on a surcharge to the personal income tax, hoping to get a dedicated funding source for the additional police that would sunset after seven years, similar to de Blasio’s commitment that the dedicated tax for universal preschool would expire after five years.
“Dinkins felt that if you didn’t have specific funds for this that you could point at, it would be subject to the annual budget process that takes place not only between the mayor and the Council, but between the city and the state,” said Norman Steisel, Dinkins’ first deputy mayor. “Every year it would be subject to a new round of negotiation.”
However, the proposal still required an extra component to sway the Legislature. The tax levy Vallone and Dinkins were pushing for became not just a source of revenue to pay for upwards of 7,000 police officers, but also to help establish the Beacon after school youth programs to keep children off the street and out of trouble. Still, the Legislature, as well as the governor at the time, Mario Cuomo were—sound familiar?—reluctant to approve the surcharge. Steisel said that the elder Cuomo did not play a major role in negotiating the finer points of the program, and that his public support for it was more political than genuine, an accusation that many are now leveling against Gov. Andrew Cuomo with regard to the universal preschool initiative.
“The governor was kind of supportive,” Steisel said. “I think you’d have to say he was politically supportive.”
Taking the lead on needling the Legislature, Vallone resorted to the same public display of political rhetoric that de Blasio has sometimes utilized in pushing for his tax hike—arguing pointedly for the right to home rule. Vallone found the negotiations offensive and obstructionist, and was quoted criticizing the “actions of a multitude of condescending state Assemblymen and senators who insisted on having their petty parochial demands met before agreeing to allow us to tax ourselves.”
Ultimately, Dinkins and Vallone got their tax hike and “Safe Streets, Safe City” helped contribute to the city’s slowly declining crime rate that would continue through the Giuliani and Bloomberg years. But the struggle in moving the legislation forward should serve as a guide for de Blasio. Public safety issues tend to be more politically potent than early childhood education, the benefits of which will not be seen for years to come.
De Blasio also does not have the luxury of having a partner on equal or better footing in navigating the rocky Albany terrain, as Dinkins did in Vallone. Mark-Viverito is a formidable legislator on the city stage, but insiders say she does not have the same institutional clout as Vallone, or even her predecessor Christine Quinn. Nonetheless, Vallone believes collaboration was the only way Safe Streets came to fruition, and the fact that de Blasio and the City Council, as well as numerous education, business, real estate and labor leaders, have signed on to the universal preschool proposal will help build the groundswell of support needed to persuade the governor and Legislature.
“The moral of the story is nothing really works unless you get cooperation from everyone,” Vallone said. “There’s no heroes.”
This article has been corrected to reflect the correct number of police officers hired under David Dinkins’ Safe Street Safe City program.
Tags: Assembly Ways and Means Committee, Christine Quinn, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, David Dinkins, dedicated tax, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mario Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Michael Bloomberg, New York City Council, New York State Legislature, Norman Steisel, Peter Vallone Sr., public safety, Safe Streets Safe City, Senate Finance Committee, Tale of Two Cities, universal preschool