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Mr. Big Spender

eye on the news

Mr. Big Spender

Mayor de Blasio’s new budget spares no expense—and might wind up boosting Cynthia Nixon. May 3, 2018
Politics and law
New York

New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo are both eyeing the White House. Each has to convince national voters that he alone is New York’s true progressive leader. De Blasio’s ally here is Cynthia Nixon, running for governor as a left-wing contrast to Cuomo. The mayor is now putting financial resources behind her bid: the city budget, tailored last week to help Nixon, makes her case.

In many ways, de Blasio’s fifth budget looks like his first four. The city’s doing well, so de Blasio is airily spending its money. For the fiscal year that starts July 1, the mayor proposes spending $69 billion in city cash (the feds and the state contribute another $22.5 billion). In city money, de Blasio will spend $3.5 billion more than this year, a 5.4 percent increase, when inflation is only 2.4 percent.

The mayor can hike spending because tax revenues continue to pour in—an extra $1.1 billion, compared with what the city’s budget wonks expected only two months ago. Coincidentally, the mayor has determined just since February that the city needs exactly $1.1 billion in extra spending.  But the mayor’s priorities and rhetoric were tailor-made for the Nixon campaign. De Blasio’s biggest spending increase is an extra $327 million for homeless hotels—though he didn’t bother even to mention it in his budget speech. Instead, he focused on education, proposing to increase school spending by $265 million—$140 million of which, he claims, is to make up for a Cuomo budget cut. Yet while overall state funding for the city is down slightly, state education spending on Gotham is up. Just ask the mayor’s budget team, which writes that the state’s “school aid increases by $334 million, or 3.3%.”

The other $125 million is to combat education inequality—and here, de Blasio offered what seemed like an odd blast from the past. “We will not let the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision be forgotten,” de Blasio said last week. “We’re going to keep fighting . . . There’s actually growing focus on this issue even though it’s been a decade . . . not just for New York City, for the upstate cities.”

The mayor is referring here to a 12-year-old lawsuit by education advocates against the state, in which the high court agreed that all students are entitled to state funding sufficient for a “sound, basic education.” Since then, though, the city’s education spending has grown 44 percent, to a whopping $32.2 billion—nearly $30,000 per child. City, state, and federal funding continue to rise. If there’s a problem here, it’s not money.

Why not let the new schools chancellor take a few months to look at the budget and see what’s working and what’s not? And what’s the sudden new interest in upstate cities? Answer: Nixon’s platform is all about education inequality—based, coincidentally, on the same Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that almost nobody besides her and the mayor talks about these days. She has said that Cuomo “just pretends that CFE was all over and we wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore,” and that “to have him just lie about it” spurred her run. De Blasio’s proposed budget, then, gives Nixon another talking point: the mayor is trying hard to make sure that school spending is equal, but the governor doesn’t care about poor students.

De Blasio’s newfound interest in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity makes his new budget a little different from past ones. Before, he made the city council happy by never making any choices: everyone got what they wanted. This time, he’s made a choice. In increasing money for education, he’s decided not to fund a pet proposal of new city council speaker Corey Johnson: a program under which about 800,000 poor New Yorkers could pay half-price fares to ride the subway. The “fair fare” idea has some problems—for one thing, it should apply only to people who are working, or looking for work. It’s arguable, though, that it would be more productive to help poorer New Yorkers get to work than to see more money get lost in the Department of Education bureaucracy.

Johnson won’t give up the fair-fare proposal without a fight. So now, he’s the third man involved in the Cuomo vs. de Blasio duel to determine who is New York’s most progressive of them all.

Photo by Pool/Getty Images

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