My favorite pithy definition of politics comes from -- well, as far as I can tell, from me. And it is this: Politics is leverage. That is, every so often, politicians do something because it's the right thing to do. But only the naïve count on that. Usually, pols act because they're made to; some combination of interests and forces acquires a critical mass of leverage, creating a situation in which pols must, with greater enthusiasm or lesser, pull the trigger and act.
Which raises the question: Is there any such combination of forces at play in the city and Albany that can make the mayor and the governor consider the only fiscally prudent option available to them and raise -- you read that right -- taxes? Probably not. After all, this is, for the governor, an election year. Mayor Bloomberg understands this; no doubt has been made to understand it. And so he has decreed: No taxes this year under any circumstances.
But he has indicated recently that he would consider tax increases next year, which tells us two things. First, that his opposition to such an option -- and that of Governor Pataki, who would have to sign off on any major tax levy -- is a matter not of principle but of election-year politics. And second, that Bloomberg, praised for his prudence and sense of fairness, isn't doing one of the fundamental things a New York City mayor is supposed to do.
Let's start with some facts. The city faces a deficit of $5 billion, more than 10 percent of the entire budget. Bloomberg wants to close it four ways: with $1.9 billion in service cuts; with one tax increase, on cigarettes; with $1.5 billion in borrowing; and finally, with $800 million in support from Albany and Washington.
A budget cut of just under $2 billion is a pretty hefty slice, but let's face it, most agencies can nip and tuck. A cigarette tax is easy, politically. It's the last two that are especially wobbly and worrisome. The borrowing smacks of the sort of sleight-of-hand that helped bring on the seventies fiscal crisis, and as for the commitments from Albany and Washington, quite a few experts wonder whether the mayor's hope is realistic, to put it in the mildest of terms. They can always put masking tape on a budget at the last minute and declare it "balanced," but in truth, that degree of borrowing can throw the coffers out of whack for years. The people who will pay are the people who always pay, and they don't write columns or belong to the chattering classes or send their kids to private schools.
Speaking of schools -- one of the proposed cuts is $355 million to the Board of Education. This is a mayoral cut, strictly speaking, but the governor and the State Legislature will play a role in how big it finally ends up being. Now, staying on the subject of the schools, the mayor, as you know, wants control of the Board of Ed. So the parameters of the deal being sketched out now in Albany are as follows. The mayor will get control of the schools, possibly in the form of an eleven-member board on which he has a majority of votes (six, to the borough presidents' five). In return, that $355 million will be restored.
There are some, however, who want more than the mere restoration of a cut. This is where taxes come in. City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, along with a majority of members of the City Council and most members of the city delegations in both state houses, all egged on by the Working Families Party, support a small surcharge in the city's personal-income tax to be dedicated to schools. This group is largely Democratic but does include a few Republicans, among them Queens state senator Frank Padavan.
Under the proposals (there are two), a person earning $97,400 would pay an extra $118 to $142 a year. That's one meal with Danny Meyer, or not even. So it's not much to pay, and when set against savings such an earner would reap from the Bush tax cut -- something three out of four New Yorkers voted against -- he or she would still come out $2,000 ahead. The City Council's version of the proposal would bring in $398 million. Most of these same people would also very much like to see a restoration of the commuter tax, done away with by Albany in 1999, which would garner another $400 million or so. Both would mean $800 million less in borrowing and wishing -- not to mention construction of new classrooms, and new textbooks for students currently working with Xeroxed copies of old ones (this is true; this year's state budget seeks a further reduction in the city's textbook allowances).
You may be saying: Fair enough on the commuter tax, but why throw more money at the sinkhole on Livingston Street? It's a legitimate question, and it's one I can't settle definitively in this space. But I can make two points: The Board of Ed has absorbed $3 billion in cuts over a decade; schools across the city have canceled sports programs, art and music classes, and other essentials. Also, it is the experience of this city that dedicated taxes work. In 1991, Mayor David Dinkins led the push for a surcharge (since ended) to hire 5,000 more police officers, which helped kick-start the dramatic crime reduction.
And so, back to leverage. What can make the mayor consider these proposals? Partly Giff Miller. He has pushed the tax issue adroitly and will start budget negotiations with the mayor's people soon. "The only reason it's unrealistic is that he says it's unrealistic," Miller says. "The minute he comes onboard, it becomes realistic." That can happen if city-area legislators in Albany say they'll block mayoral control of the schools unless Bloomberg signs on to the education tax. They may do that, but only if they, in turn, feel the pressure -- from interest groups, public-school parents, and you (trust me, they won't get any from editorial boards).
That Bloomberg will not consider these taxes this year, while signaling he may do so after Pataki (presumably) wins reelection, tells us a lot. A mayor is supposed to fight the governor on New York City's behalf. Every recent mayor has. "I've researched this," says Assemblyman Scott Stringer, who introduced a bill to reinstate the commuter tax. "Every mayor since Lindsay, when the tax was imposed, has not only supported it but asked for more."
But Bloomberg is catering to the governor's political needs, and he fears the wrath of the tax-phobic business Establishment. A mayor needs to keep that element happy. But a mayor who won with nearly half the Latino vote and a quarter of the black vote also has a constituency of public-school parents to whom he is answerable.
And say what you will about Mark Green, but there is utterly no doubt that if Green, labeled a racist last year by some, were the city's Democratic mayor, he would be fighting for his black and brown constituents and at the very least clamoring for restoration of the commuter tax. Even Rudy Giuliani, no tax-and-spender, howled when Albany furtively deep-sixed it. From Bloomberg, not a word.
You'll hear from him next year, when he faces another daunting gap and acknowledges that maybe taxes aren't so bad. And you'll be able to say "I told you so."