Just before he unveiled his new budget proposal on Jan. 28, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was offering a closed-door briefing to City Council members when a Councilman interrupted with an impertinent question.
Why, the Councilman wanted to know, was the Mayor building much of his budget proposal on the hope that his fellow Republican in Albany, Governor George Pataki, would reinstate the commuter tax? Hadn’t Mr. Pataki repeatedly refused to revive it ever since the Mayor asked him to last November?
Mr. Bloomberg gave his questioner the sort of patient look that a C.E.O. might give a secretary who had wandered in to offer a few stock tips. He said: “It absolutely has to come true.”
In renewing his call for a revived-and higher-commuter tax as part of his preliminary budget, Mr. Bloomberg is following the same strategy that enabled him, against extraordinary odds, to win control of the city’s public schools last summer. He is arguing that the city’s ability to close its multibillion-dollar budget gap depends on Albany’s help-in this case, in the form of a revived commuter tax–even though the Governor rebuffed the same appeal only three months ago. Just as he did in his effort to win the schools, the Mayor is politely but firmly repeating his position in the same business-like monotone, again and again, without banging on the table or assailing the forces in Albany who are holding out on him.
When Mr. Bloomberg pursued this low-key, unwavering approach last summer in his quest for school control, the state legislators who were blocking his way were eventually shamed into caving, lest they be seen as supporters of an unacceptable status quo. This time, the Mayor hopes that if he gently nudges the Governor and reminds him in placid tones that the city is in desperate need, Mr. Pataki ultimately will have no choice but to come through, or be seen as abandoning the city in a moment of distress.
What makes Mr. Bloomberg’s approach all the more remarkable is the fact that he’s sticking to it despite mounting pressure on him from business leaders, Council members, lobbyists and others who want him to be more aggressive with Albany. Nor does he seem overly troubled by the unpleasant fact that Mr. Pataki and his Republican ally in Albany, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, have made it quite clear they have no intention of giving the Mayor his way.
“Bloomberg’s consistent, nonbelligerent pressure on Albany eventually won him control of the schools,” Dale Hemmerdinger, the incoming chairman of the Citizens’ Budget Commission, told The Observer . “I think he believes that the same tactic will work this time with the commuter tax. I wish him well, but Pataki and Bruno have already said no, and in the end, I don’t think he’ll get what he wants for the city.”
Mr. Bloomberg-whose budget proposal also called for $550 million in steep spending cuts and productivity givebacks from unions-appears to be trying to maneuver the Governor into a corner. His advisers engaged in a shrewd bit of budget brinkmanship, publicly calling for the commuter tax on the day before the Governor was scheduled to offer his own budget. This insured that the Governor would be edged into the position of denying the city needed revenues on a day when the newspapers were focusing on the city’s dire budgetary straits.
Barely moments after the Mayor had wrapped up his presentation, Mr. Pataki’s staffers were already telling reporters that the Governor had no intention of reviving the commuter tax-even as he was putting the final touches on a state budget that reportedly contained steep spending cuts to the city.
In and around City Hall these days, the political talk is focused on Mr. Bloomberg’s insistence on maintaining the most placid of relationships with the Governor, even though the Mayor has done a great deal of political heavy lifting for Mr. Pataki and received little in return. And as Mr. Bloomberg made his pitch on Jan. 28, frustration rose throughout the building among lobbyists and City Council members who want him to get tough with Mr. Pataki.
Even as Mr. Bloomberg’s monotone issued from televisions throughout the building, Council members roamed the lobby, assailing the Mayor and demanding a more belligerent posture.
“I understand the Mayor’s theory that we may have more to gain from being polite,” said City Council member Bill de Blasio of Brooklyn. “But we haven’t seen results. The people of New York City are very frustrated that the Governor has not come to our aid. If I were the Mayor, I would not continue with this strategy much longer. He needs to give the Governor a sense that time’s running out.”
Meanwhile, Council staffers hurried through dingy basement offices, crafting a response for Speaker Gifford Miller. The Speaker assailed the Governor soon after, saying: “It is not only what Governor Pataki will do for us. We clearly also have to be deeply concerned with what the state budget will do to us.”
Mr. Bloomberg has staked a great deal on winning the commuter tax. The Mayor’s proposal, like the one he aired last November, isn’t simply a revival of the tax; it calls for a restructuring of the income-tax rates of people who live and work in the city, hiking the amount of new revenues $1 billion dollars-around a third of the city’s projected deficit.
While Mr. Bloomberg seems optimistic that his strategy will win the same dividends as it did when he pursued control of the schools, the circumstances are different this time. Mr. Bloomberg won the schools largely because he wasn’t Rudolph Giuliani, and because Albany legislators understood that they could no longer be seen as obstacles to change. No such consensus exists on the tax.
A Tougher Fight
“While his strategy of applying gentle pressure seems to be the same, this is going to be a far tougher fight,” said Democratic political consultant Richard Schrader. “When he wanted the schools, the business community was behind him and there was only minor resistance. Now he’s up against the Governor, all of the suburbs and the entire State Senate leadership.”
“He had a lot more allies in that fight,” added one senior Republican in Albany, noting that the Mayor’s precipitous drop in the polls, coming in the wake of his call for property-tax increases, would alone dissuade many Republicans in the State Senate from reviving a commuter tax. “The Mayor raised taxes by more than anyone in the history of the city, and look at the numbers. He is a walking argument against [the commuter tax] for Senators in Nassau County and in Westchester.”
That said, Mr. Bloomberg has an extraordinary amount of hidden leverage over the Governor, and it can be summed up in three words: Republican National Convention.
Mr. Bloomberg was ecstatic when G.O.P. leaders announced that they were bringing their quadrennial party to New York in 2004, and not just because of the estimated $150 million it’s expected to bring in. As Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers like to point out privately, the Governor, who is said to be angling for a future in the Bush administration, will be under intense pressure from the national party to help ensure that New York sparkles when the convention comes to town. And that may give Mr. Bloomberg a big boost as budget negotiations unfold over the coming months.
“The Republican convention is a big advantage for Bloomberg,” said political consultant Norman Adler. “Republicans don’t want to come into a city that is rapidly deteriorating because it can’t pay its bills. If you cut cops, firefighters, social workers and garbage collection, the backdrop of the convention will be a burning, crime-ridden, dirty city with homeless people all over the place.”