When Mayor Bloomberg gave his final budget speech last month, for the fiscal year that started July 1, he didn’t hog the stage. He ceded most of his time to the woman standing to his left: New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
Standing outside City Hall on Sunday, June 23, Bloomberg praised Quinn, noting her “effective leadership.” On dealing with the motley crew of Council members Quinn leads, he commiserated: “Chris, it is never easy,” he said. “We owe you a debt of gratitude.”
Quinn was happy to return the nice words, telling the mayor: “We want to thank you … for being a great partner for us.”
Quinn may hope that her position as Bloomberg’s fiscal partner helps her with voters worried about spending and taxes, but Bloomberg’s fiscal inheritance is as much a liability as it is an asset.
Following the speech, Quinn did what she does every year. She took political credit for protecting daycare slots, firehouses and library hours.
In this year’s budget, the mayor gave her a particularly valuable primary-season gift: $71 million for public housing.
Quinn said that by winning back those dollars, the New York City Housing Authority would “avert 325 layoffs” and “avoid the closures of nearly 60 senior and community centers.”
The money may help Quinn plug a political deficit on the left. As a former tenant activist, she has made “affordable”— government-subsidized—housing a key campaign issue.
Yet she has endured boos at mayoral forums from advocates who don’t think she’s done enough.
Now she’s brought home some bacon—while avoiding the fact that the average public-housing rent—$436 monthly—can’t cover aging buildings’ upkeep.
Quinn went further, though, and embraced all aspects of the mayor’s budgeting.
She sounded just like Bloomberg. “Other cities in the country are still suffering badly,” she said, because of the 2008 recession. But “the forward-thinking decisions we made … in the boom years … allowed us to avoid the more painful layoffs and cuts. … We put money aside in my early term as speaker.”
Noting that the budget “does not rely on one-shots,” she concluded: “We’re not leaving the next council and the next administration on bad financial footing.”
This is stock Bloomberg—but wrong.
New York’s fiscal problems have little to do with the 2008 crash. The city needs a permanent Wall Street bubble to spend what it does.
Since Quinn became Speaker, city spending has risen 39.3 percent (inflation has risen 19.3 percent), to $53.4 billion. Most of that extra spending has gone toward two things—public-worker pension and healthcare benefits. They’ve risen 59.8 percent, from $10.6 billion to $17 billion annually.
Quinn’s reference to the pre-2008 budget surplus, too, is incorrect. True, the city built up $8 billion. But that was mostly to start prefunding about $88 billion in future payments the city owes for retiree healthcare, as the city already pre-funds pensions.
Now, that surplus is gone. But we haven’t pared down healthcare promises.
Plus: what to do about retroactive raises for union workers, whose contracts are expired?
Raises would cost nearly $8 billion, yet Quinn hasn’t said if she’d approve them as mayor. She should tell primary voters that by signing off on eight budgets with no money set aside for such raises, she’s implicitly said “no.”
Quinn could have used her time to gently warn New Yorkers of the permanent fiscal crunch (even the mayor sometimes does this). Chronic budget woes are the reason the NYPD has lost more than 5,000 officers over Bloomberg’s years.
Instead, she’s chosen to own next year’s—and the next mayor’s—$2 billion deficit.
She leaves herself open to criticism.
Sure, candidates like Comptroller John Liu and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio hit City Hall’s latest budget from the left—for not spending enough.
But former Congressman Anthony Weiner and his GOP counterpart, former MTA chief Joe Lhota, are hitting from the middle. Both men say that city workers should have to pay some of their healthcare premiums. Lhota has disavowed retroactive raises.
Weiner is ahead in polls—whereas Liu and de Blasio haven’t gained traction.
The budget may be one reason why Quinn has lost her frontrunner status.
Nicole Gelinas (@nicolegelinas on Twitter) is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.