De Blasio Pre-K Push Mirrors Dinkins-Era Negotiation
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio traveled to Albany last month to make the case for his universal preschool program. De Blasio campaigned on providing full-day preschool for all 4-year-olds and after-school programs for every middle school student, which would be paid for through a temporary tax hike on the city’s high-income earners. The common perception is that the tax hike would be a deal breaker for the state Legislature, specifically for Senate Republicans. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo has indicated his reluctance to raise taxes during an election year.
Still, de Blasio delivered testimony in his deliberate, measured style, arguing for a dedicated funding source for the program—and in doing so, reached back in history to point to an initiative by his former boss, David Dinkins, that required significant cooperation from Albany.
“Let me remind you that the Legislature has taken this kind of action before, and not so very long ago,” de Blasio told state lawmakers at a budget hearing. “In the early 1990s, you gave New York City authority to levy a temporary dedicated income tax surcharge that funded the Dinkins administration’s ‘Safe Streets, Safe City’ program. Doing that allowed us to hire thousands of new police officers. It began the historic ongoing reduction of crime in our city. … Now you can help us make history again.”
Dinkins’ Safe Streets program, like de Blasio’s universal preschool initiative, was driven by a new mayor’s sense of urgency. Dinkins took office at the height of New York City’s crack epidemic, which, coupled with the rising homicide rate, created a desperate need for more police. De Blasio campaigned heavily on ending the “Tale of Two Cities”—a metaphor for the city’s growing economic and social gap— and doubled down on universal preschool as the foundation for putting young children on the path to success.
“In some ways he’s taking a page from history then, and saying that now that crime is down, there’s really a need for focusing on education,” said Harvey Robins, Dinkins’ former director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations. “He’s pairing the two.”
De Blasio is also taking a page out of the Dinkins playbook in organizing a broad coalition to pressure the Legislature to grant his proposed tax hike, bolstering his lobbying with support from the New York City Council. The mayor was joined in Albany by a delegation of Council members, including Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who also advocated for the universal preschool proposal.
Numerous Dinkins administration staffers said that the former mayor could not have gotten his dedicated tax hike through without the help of former Council Speaker Peter Vallone, whose Rolodex was thick with Albany connections the mayor did not yet have.
It was Vallone who first suggested to Dinkins that the city push to hire more police officers after several high-profile murders on the city’s subways.
“[The city] had not only no money, but we had no cops,” Vallone recalled. “We were down to about 25,000 cops, and getting lower and lower as it goes.”
At the time, Vallone took stock of the city’s desperate fiscal situation and decided to make deep cuts to the mayor’s budget in order to find the funds to help fortify the city’s police force.
“I convinced [Dinkins] that he had to come to Albany with me or I would slash every part of the mayor’s budget, including corporation counsel— anything that the mayor wanted, I would slash to take the monies that we needed to get the cops,” Vallone said. “Instead of doing that, he came to Albany with me.”
Together Vallone and Dinkins worked with the Legislature, proposing a variety of tax hikes to pay for additional police. They first tried to raise the property tax. When that proved impossible, they floated raising the payroll tax. Eventually the Dinkins- Vallone team settled on a surcharge to the personal income tax, hoping to get a dedicated funding source that would sunset after seven years, similar to de Blasio’s commitment that the dedicated tax for universal preschool would expire after five years.
“Dinkins felt that if you didn’t have specific funds for this you could point at, it would be subject to the annual budget process that takes place not only between the mayor and the Council but between the city and the state,” said Norman Steisel, Dinkins’ first deputy mayor. “Every year it would be subject to a new round of negotiation.”
The proposal still required an extra component to help sway the Legislature. Dinkins administration officials say the former mayor recognized that Vallone’s plan relied too heavily on increased law enforcement resources when there were many factors behind rising crime rates. There was a growing concern that children in the city did not have a useful outlet to keep them off the streets and out of trouble. As a result, Dinkins came up with a number of suggestions to buttress the request for police officers, which included Beacon community centers. The Beacon centers to this day provide a wide range of social services from recreation to job training.
Still, the Legislature—as well as then Gov. Mario Cuomo—was reluctant to approve the surcharge. Cuomo did not play a major role in negotiating the finer points of the program, and his public support for Dinkins’ proposal was more political than genuine, Steisel said—an accusation many now level against Gov. Andrew Cuomo with regard to universal preschool. “The governor was kind of supportive,” Steisel said. “I think you’d have to say he was politically supportive.”
Taking the lead on needling the Legislature, Vallone relied on the same public display of political rhetoric de Blasio has utilized in pushing his tax hike: arguing for the right to home rule.
Ultimately, Dinkins and Vallone got their tax hike, and “Safe Streets, Safe City” helped contribute to a declining crime rate that would continue through the Giuliani and Bloomberg years.
Of course, public safety issues tend to be more politically potent than early childhood education, the benefits of which will not be seen for years to come. De Blasio also does not have the luxury of having a partner on equal or better footing in navigating the rocky Albany terrain, as Dinkins did in Vallone. Mark-Viverito is a formidable legislator on the city stage, but insiders say she does not have the same institutional clout as Vallone, or even her predecessor, Christine Quinn.
But the struggle in moving the legislation forward may offer lessons. Vallone believes collaboration was the only way Safe Streets came to fruition, and the fact that de Blasio and the City Council, as well as a growing number of education, business, real estate and labor leaders, have signed on to the universal preschool proposal, will help build the groundswell of support needed to persuade the governor and Legislature.
“The moral of the story is nothing really works unless you get cooperation from everyone,” Vallone said. “There’s no heroes.”