New State Budget Is a Relief for Bill de Blasio

Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio in gentler times
Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio in gentler times (Photo: Rob Bennett for NYC Mayor's Office)

For a time, 2016 promised to be Mayor Bill de Blasio’s bleakest season in Albany yet—but with last night’s announced budget agreement, the clouds have cleared without a storm, and the mayor suddenly finds the sun shining on him for a change.

The capital hasn’t exactly had the most hospitable climate for Mr. de Blasio during the first years of his tenure.

It was the state government, led by Gov. Andrew Cuomo—then still putatively a friend—that handed him his earliest defeats upon entering office: not just obstructing his efforts to charge charter schools rent for use of public buildings, but obligating the city to pay when they have to lease private space. The new mayor got the funding for his prekindergarten program in 2014, but not the tax hike on the wealthy that he had campaigned on.

Things only got worse in his second year in office, after the loss of his most reliable ally, ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s anti-corruption crusade. Mr. Cuomo then scoffed at his fellow Democrat‘s call to include measure in the state budget that would increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in New York City, creating one pay rate for the lowest earners in the five boroughs and a different one for the rest of the state.

The governor was equally dismissive of Mr. de Blasio’s push to reform the 421a tax abatement for developers, a change crucial to the mayor’s ambitious housing plan. Most humiliating of all, Albany only agreed to extend mayoral control of schools for a single measly year at the close of the last legislative session in June.

And after a bitter clash with Mr. Cuomo last fall over boosting the city’s contribution to the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Mr. de Blasio agreed to cough up $2.5 billion toward the transit system—only to have the MTA shear funding for construction of the Second Avenue Subway by nearly $1 billion.

The mayor’s visits to the state capital to plead for funding have become increasingly lonely occasions, where even Democrats in the State Legislature have subjected him to withering cross-examination.

Just months ago, Mr. Cuomo suggested slashing state expenses—and burning his bitter rival the mayor—by forcing Mr. de Blasio to triple his allocation to the City University of New York system. The state has underwritten roughly half the CUNY budget since the city’s brush with bankruptcy in the 1970s, leaving City Hall to foot approximately 10 percent.

The balance of the now-$3 billion in yearly operating expenses comes from tuition.

The governor also looked to cut his budget by obligating the city to cover the increasing costs of Medicaid. Albany has shouldered the program’s spiking expenses in all localities statewide since 2011, part of the arrangement on Mr. Cuomo’s two percent property tax cap. But that cap that did not apply to the city.

Mr. de Blasio’s office estimated these changes would drain $1 billion from the city’s coffers by 2020, and vowed to fight them “by any means necessary.”

The Democrat-dominated Assembly, with its new Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx, blocked cuts to state spending on the university system and low-income healthcare. The final deal with the governor and the Republican State Senate also froze tuition at all public colleges in the state.

“New York City had a tremendous amount at stake in this state budget, from dangerous cuts that would have imperiled key city services, to real opportunities to fight inequality and lift up working people,” Mr. de Blasio said in a statement. “Because proposals to put hundreds of millions of dollars of state liabilities for CUNY and Medicaid on the city were averted, we can maintain vital programs and protect the city against future economic turmoil.”

The mayor’s team could also celebrate a smaller victory: though the budget sets aside a large lump sum to increase aid to charter schools across the state by $430 per student. But it does not tinker with the fundamental formula by which the city allocates aid, which advocates for the publicly funded, privately run schools had encouraged and Mr. Cuomo had proposed.

And New York City is getting its own, higher minimum wage—$15 an hour by the end of 2018, just what Mr. de Blasio had called for. After previously opposing the union-driven “Fight for $15,” Mr. Cuomo made the cause his own midway through last year, eclipsing the mayor as its foremost advocate in the state. The deal yesterday with the resistant State Senate will have the pay raise take effect in the larger New York metro area over the next six years, while the wage upstate will only go to $12.50.

Seeing one of his initiatives passed with little input from himself, the mayor could only applaud his rival.

“I congratulate Governor Cuomo and the Legislature for their commitment to these changes which will pull hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers into greater economic security,” he said.

Additionally, the budget restores $500 million toward building the Second Avenue train tunnel.

There are, of course, two looming issues that the budget deal did not resolve. The 421a abatement—the sine qua non of Mr. de Blasio’s proposal to construct 60,000 new below-market apartments—expired in January after an ill-fated decision by Mr. Cuomo and the legislative leaders to have the real estate industry and unions negotiateinclude new prevailing wage requirements for construction workers.

Further, mayoral control of the city education system could end with this school year unless Albany agrees to extend it. So Mr. de Blasio might have to make another desperate voyage up the Hudson before the summer. New State Budget Is a Relief for Bill de Blasio