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Pre-K funding fight not letting up at state Capitol

The debate regarding universal pre-kindergarten shows no signs of slowing down at the New York Capitol. The Democratic Mayor of New York City is not backing down from his plan to tax the wealthy to pay for pre-K, while upstate and suburban Republicans in the state Senate say they will block a vote on the tax proposal.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, in his State of the City address, stuck to his plan to continue to ask state lawmakers for permission to tax the wealthy to fund universal pre-K. De Blasio says he’s not advocating for a statewide income tax hike.   

“We’re simply asking Albany to allow New York City to tax itself,” de Blasio said Monday.

But the leader of the Senate Republicans Dean Skelos, says his house is not inclined to vote on a bill, known as a home rule message, to grant permission for tax increases for New York City. Skelos and his Republican members represent many parts of Long Island and across upstate New York. He says raising taxes now would harm the economy.

“The last thing we need is to see high earners leave New York state,” Skelos said.

Skelos’ remarks annoyed the leader of the Assembly Democrats, Speaker Sheldon Silver, who’s been supportive of the mayor’s tax-the-rich plan.

“I don’t understand why Sen. Skelos would remove a viable option from the table at this stage of the budget discussion,” Silver said.

Senate Republicans rule in a coalition government with a handful of breakaway Democrats, known as the Independent Democratic Conference. IDC Leader Jeff Klein issued a statement implying that he would hold up the budget over the issue, saying he would not approve a spending plan that fails to realize the vision of universal pre-K.   

Klein walked back those comments a day later, saying he was not closing the door on other alternatives to the tax on the wealthy. But he said an alternative plan by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to more slowly phase in universal pre-K does not provide enough money soon enough.

“There’s a gap, so now it’s up to us to come up with the money or adapt the mayor’s plan,” Klein said.  

Klein denies that his difference of opinion with Sen. Skelos over the tax increase proposal represents a chink in the armor of the ruling coalition. Klein says there are still a lot of ifs in de Blasio’s plan, and he questioned whether it’s really feasible to have pre-K for more than 50,000 four-year-olds up and running by September.

Cuomo, like the Senate Republicans, is also against raising taxes this year. The state already has a temporary income tax surcharge on the wealthy.

Skelos says he prefers the phased in pre-K plan advanced by the governor. Silver says he’s open to negotiations on both the mayor’s and the governor’s options.

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.