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New York’s New Mayor Goes To School

New York's incumbent governor has a lesson plan for New York City's new mayor: The city is part of the Empire State, not a sovereign commonwealth.

Or maybe Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s schooling of Mayor Bill de Blasio is even easier to remember when put more succinctly: Know your place.

Fittingly, the vehicle for this lesson is the topic of education. De Blasio badly wants to put the brakes on the growing number of charter schools in New York City, which his supporters in the teachers' unions loathe. He especially wants to put the brakes on charter schools run by his former New York City Council antagonist, Eva Markowitz. Cuomo, like other centrist Democrats, thinks charter schools provide a useful alternative to underperforming public schools, especially since Albany has been spoon-feeding money to those public schools for decades with only modest improvement to show for it.

De Blasio inhabits an echo chamber of progressive politics. Within it, his predecessor, businessman Michael Bloomberg, is not held in particularly high esteem. On the other hand, while Cuomo has solid enough support among New York City Democrats, his views are much more closely aligned to Democrats and independents elsewhere in the state, especially the New York suburbs, where Bloomberg is more widely seen as a somewhat autocratic mayor who was nevertheless a generally effective manager.

Though one should never underestimate the influence of unions in New York state government, Cuomo probably has more to gain than to lose in this year's re-election campaign by drawing a contrast between himself and de Blasio. There is no credible Democrat alternative to Cuomo in this year’s gubernatorial contest, and neither the teachers’ unions nor the rest of organized labor will end up supporting Cuomo's Republican opponent, whoever that might be. (I'm betting the GOP will run someone with a name like “Sacrificial Lamb.”)

Both the governor and the mayor want to expand pre-kindergarten programs. This is not because pre-k is the state’s most pressing need, or even the most pressing educational need. It's because de Blasio made expanded pre-k, paid for by a surtax on New York City’s more affluent taxpayers, a centerpiece of his campaign. In the first flush of his recent election, de Blasio seems to have little interest in compromise.

“The people in the city have given me a mission,” the mayor said at a press conference following Cuomo’s January announcement of his budget proposal.

De Blasio also said that the tax on the wealthy to support pre-k “was the No. 1 proposal I put forward in an election that I won with 73 percent of the vote.” He added, “I think the jury is in.”

Ordinarily one might expect the program to be much more important than the particular means proposed to fund it. And so it is, at least to Cuomo. He has proposed expanded statewide pre-k, to be paid for with funds trimmed from elsewhere in New York's not-overly-lean budget.

But de Blasio has made his soak-the-rich argument a centerpiece of his political reason for being. It's not enough to give New Yorkers universal pre-k; the mayor must also make sure just a select few people pay for it, in a certain way. That's what de Blasio’s posse expects him to do, so that is what he has committed himself to doing.

De Blasio has characterized his focus on taxing the affluent as creating a dedicated, permanent revenue stream for the pre-k program. That is another way of saying the tax would leave him more money to promise to the city’s unions in upcoming contract talks.

Of course, there is no such thing as a permanent revenue stream. If the richest residents of New York City get tired of taking de Blasio’s bath, they may move - and not just to Scarsdale or Great Neck, where Albany can continue to tax them. They may well take their private equity funds to Greenwich, Conn., or Boca Raton, Fla. They would pay less state tax in the former or none at all in the latter. Albany tax policy alone gives them reason enough to move.

Cuomo seems to realize that de Blasio’s us-versus-them game may ultimately drive out a significant slice of the people who help fund public services in Buffalo as well as in Bensonhurst. Allowing de Blasio to play it long enough for that to happen isn’t in either man’s interest, though the governor seems to be the one who is aware of it.

De Blasio has allies in Albany within the city’s legislative delegation. One of them, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, is a force to be reckoned with - much more so than the mayor himself, once you get north of Riverdale. The power struggle, for which pre-k and charter schools currently serve as the dual fulcrum, is not one with a foregone conclusion.

But my guess is that, when the dust settles, the city’s inexperienced mayor will have learned the governor’s lesson.

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