Freshman City Council Speaker Christine Quinn gave her inaugural response to Mayor Bloomberg’s annual budget proposal Thursday, focused on a plea for the mayor to “end the same old [annual] budget dance.” But despite Quinn’s plaint, it’s not the dance that’s the problem. The problem is that Bloomberg has never figured out how to give his partners in the Council a real whirl around the ballroom floor.
In her budget speech, Quinn argues that the current budget process is a charade. What passes for budget negotiations between the mayor and the Council consists of the mayor making nominal cuts to “a tiny fraction” (as Quinn notes) of the city’s budget each January, only to watch the Council scramble to restore the funding each April.
Quinn wants the mayor to dispense with this tradition, and instead direct his budget officials to spend their winter preparing a more detailed budget than they currently release. Without such new information, Quinn said, “there’s no transparency, no way for us to tell exactly how taxpayer dollars are being spent.” With better information, she continued, the Council “could do a better job of oversight and more effectively evaluate programs throughout the year. . . . Does [each] program fill a need? Is it serving people effectively? . . . Can we still afford the program?”
But this angle of budget reform is itself a charade, for the mayor’s budget is not particularly inscrutable. While it’s true that the mayor’s first-draft document is more general than the final version he puts out in the summer, the Council can always look at last year’s full budget to get an idea of how the mayor proposes to spend the city’s money.
For example, one can learn from last year’s filing that the mayor plans to spend $20 million to pay the salaries of 418 people at the city’s Taxi & Limousine Commission, and another $8 million to pay for things like cars, office supplies, and training initiatives for the department. The city itemizes everything from how much it spends on grants to private day-care services and on administering the city’s welfare system. Plus, the city separately releases the cost of each individual employee’s salary.
So the Council already has a good idea of how much money the city spends on what. Moreover, the Council is already free to use the information to propose, say, to abolish the Commission on Human Rights, or to slash headcount at the city’s general administrative offices and push the mayor to do more with less there. (One clue that the Council likely would use a protracted budget process to increase spending rather than to reduce it lies in Quinn’s proposal Thursday to add nearly $100 million in new spending to the budget, including for expanded pre-school and for a new “Office of Hunger and Nutrition.”)
But the mayor shouldn’t ignore Quinn’s request to shake up the status quo. To infuse real energy into city budget negotiations, here’s what the mayor should do next time around: Start the budget season off by declaring an ambitious goal. Among the most worthy opportunities for real achievement would be for Bloomberg to propose to reduce the city’s onerous income tax significantly.
Bloomberg could easily rally broad voter support around such a proposal, as middle-class couples earning high five-figure and low six-figure salaries in New York City struggle to pay nearly 4 percent of their earnings to the city in income-tax levies in addition to paying their skyrocketing property-tax bills.
To achieve an historic income-tax cut, Bloomberg could propose in his budget how he would pay for it by running the city government with less money each year, rather than shifting the tax burden to other taxpayers. For instance, he could outline how he could effectively implement across-the-board personnel cuts, and he could start using his deep campaign-cash pockets to lobby the state legislature to reform overly generous pensions and benefits for city workers to achieve a targeted savings goal for the taxpayers.
If Bloomberg were to unveil such an ambitious plan and were to spend his budget season lobbying for it, he would put Quinn and her fellow Council members in a difficult position: They would be hard-pressed to explain to the public why they want to quibble over line-item spending rather than work with the mayor to help the city achieve lasting middle-class tax relief.