De Blasio’s Bad Idea

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, among those vying to succeed Mayor Bloomberg, may not be so eager to challenge the status quo as the incumbent has shown time and time again, preferring instead to keep interest groups and parochial neighborhood politicians happy and content. And if his recent pronouncement on taxes is any indication, Mr. Bloomberg would be right to worry about the priorities of the next administration.

Mr. de Blasio wants to expand access to full-day pre-kindergarten in the city. That’s pretty ambitious—and pretty expensive. No problem—the public advocate has a plan for that. He says he wants to fund the pre-K program by raising taxes on those who earn more than $500,000 a year. That would raise $500 million, he said, and that would be sufficient to fund pre-K classrooms and instructors for about 68,000 children.

There’s no question that pre-K programs help to prepare young children for primary school. That’s why Mr. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott recently announced the addition of 4,000 new full-day pre-K slots beginning next fall.

The question is how best to pay for this vast expansion of the city’s school system. Raising taxes on the rich—a move that would require state approval—is the wrong answer on so many levels. 

First of all, if you’re going to be taken seriously, you have to put forward serious ideas. Mr. de Blasio surely knows that the state Legislature is not going to approve raising the city’s top income rate from 3.8 percent to 4.3 percent. Any proposal that relies on that faulty assumption is simply a gimmick.

Secondly, raising the specter of Obama-style class warfare in New York is not exactly the best way to kick off a mayoral campaign, unless you’re limiting your appeal to a small and getting-smaller faction of the Democratic Party. If Mr. de Blasio wishes to appeal to the Occupy Wall Street crowd, that is entirely his right. But he may find himself very lonely when the campaign begins in earnest next year.

Then again, all may not be lost. Mr. de Blasio has run for office with the support of labor unions, but he has made it clear that he understands that without pension and benefit reform, the city’s books will be in a perpetual state of crisis in coming decades. Even as he proposed soaking the rich to fund pre-K, the public advocate acknowledged that current spending on pension and benefits for public employees simply can’t be sustained.

That’s a good sign—because it is so evidently true.

Let’s see if Mr. de Blasio’s competitors agree. As much as they’d prefer to talk about expanding services and other fun stuff, the most-critical issue facing the next mayor is pension and benefit reform. The city spends $13 billion a year on pensions and benefits. If those costs continue to go up, you can forget about all those big plans. Including an expansion of full-day pre-K.