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Mayors testify at annual Tin Cup Day in Albany

Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio talk during a panel discussion.

Mayors from around the state -- including Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner -- testified before the state legislative fiscal committees. In what’s traditionally known as Tin Cup Day, many asked for more money, while others asked for authorization to collect more money from their citizens.

First up was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who came armed with a new report that he says shows how he could enact universal access to pre-kindergarten at a “rapid pace,” in an expansion that he calls one of the largest in the nation’s history.

“We’re ready to begin right away,” de Blasio said.

De Blasio says he’s identified 4,000 classrooms that could be ready for 54,000 four-years-olds by September. And he says the remainder of the 73,000 eligible for pre-K could begin by January 2016.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has recommended phasing in universal pre-K more slowly, and said in his budget address that the state could fully fund pre-K in five years.

But de Blasio does not want to wait that long. He’s not backing down from a plan to raise the city’s income taxes on the wealthy to provide a dedicated funding source for pre-K. He told legislators on the joint fiscal committees that he will continue to ask for their permission to raise the tax, because the program need a predicable and consistent funding source.

“We’re not asking Albany to raise the state income tax by a single penny,” de Blasio said. “We’re simply asking Albany to allow New York City to tax itself, its wealthiest residents.”   

Later, de Blasio and Cuomo, who have been long-time allies, downplayed their differences over pre-K funding in an unrelated joint news conference on a federal Medicaid waiver.

Cuomo says while he thinks his proposal to phase in pre-K, without raising taxes, is the best proposal, he’s willing to talk with a man he calls his long-time friend.

“The question becomes ‘well, how do you do it?’” Cuomo said. “And that’s the discussion that we’re going to be having over the next several weeks.”

De Blasio agrees it’s natural that he and the governor disagree at times.

“Guess what guys, once in a while we may have different perspectives,” de Blasio said.

But expanding pre-kindergarten is not just the concern of the New York City Mayor.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, who also testified at the budget hearing, says she also would like to offer all-day pre-kindergarten to four-year-olds in her city.

“We can’t afford not to do pre-K. We are losing an entire generation,” said Miner, who says poorer children need the extra assistance to compete with their wealthier peers.

Upstate cities do not have the ability to increase income taxes, they rely mainly on a dwindling property tax base. As a result, many are strapped for cash, so any pre-K expansion would be dependent on more money from the state.  

Some, like the cities of Albany and Rochester, are  already seeking help from a special financial review board set up by Cuomo.

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren echoed Mayor de Blasio’s rhetoric of income equality, saying her city has the worst school district in the state and the fifth-highest child poverty rate in the nation.

“Rochester’s a tale of two cities,” said Warren, who says one city is “vibrant, hopeful wealthy and highly livable.”

“The other suffers from escalating unemployment, poverty, dysfunction,” Warren said.    

Warren says her city has already laid off workers and consolidated services, now, she says, state lawmakers need to start adding funding this year to Assistance for Municipalities or AIM aid, to address her city’s inequities. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.