Mayor Michael Bloomberg was at his best this morning at City Hall: wielding charts and graphs and expounding on the nuances behind very big dollar figures. The core numbers hadn’t changed much since Bloomberg’s preliminary budget presentation in February he’s still planning to cut 6,000 teachers to help close a deficit that’s still more than $2 billion. What has changed dramatically over the past few months is Bloomberg’s tone.
The mayor spent much of the winter leading a full-court press, angrily complaining about state government’s unfairness to the city and loudly insisting on the repeal of “LIFO,” the state law requiring that teachers with the least seniority be fired first. Didn’t work: Andrew Cuomo needed peace with the teachers union and Shelly Silver more than he needed Bloomberg’s backing, and the new governor didn’t appreciate the mayor trying to push him around. Bloomberg is still rightly blaming Albany — and, to a lesser extent, Washington — for shifting problems downstream. But today Bloomberg was downright conciliatory and regretful as he criticized, claiming he holds out hope for last-minute help from the state. “I’m very sympathetic to Andrew Cuomo,” he said. “I’m not going to second-guess.” A reporter asked why Bloomberg’s lobbying efforts in Albany had failed; the mayor shrugged off the invitation to attack, instead attributing the setback to prevailing anti-government sentiment.
The soft-pedaling — and Bloomberg’s legitimate touting of his generally solid record steering the city’s finances — didn’t win him much love locally. Comptroller John Liu jabbed at the administration for spending “billions of dollars on high-priced consultants.” Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, accused Bloomberg of playing politics with the budget. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio did better than merely carping: He’s planning to mobilize parent groups to fight the teacher layoffs.
There was also deep skepticism that Bloomberg will follow through with the most painful cuts. “The mayor has a believability problem,” one public official says. “He made a very substantial threat last year to lay off teachers, which dissipated as the revenue dynamics changed. Now, after the snowstorm and Cathie Black and the CityTime scandal, why would he want to do the single most unpopular thing he could do?”
Bloomberg insists he means it this time, that the money isn’t there, and that he isn’t laying off teachers to prove a point about LIFO. But if this isn’t the usual shell game, in which city tax revenues spike and Bloomberg saves thousands of jobs just before the July 1 deadline, he really is going to need an assist from Albany. There’s not much chance of the state suddenly coughing up more cash; a compromise on seniority rules or state mandates, though, should be possible. Two weeks ago the mayor and the governor had a long dinner on the Upper West Side. Perhaps today’s quieter tone at City Hall is the next step in trying to get Cuomo to pick up part of a much bigger check.