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Upstate-downstate tensions emerge as NYC mayor is questioned by senate GOP at budget hearing

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, right, has proposed cutting $800 million in funds to New York City, which has led to pushback from its Mayor Bill de Blasio, left.

Tensions between upstate state senators and the mayor of New York City were highlighted during a budget hearing on aid to local governments in Albany when lawmakers questioned the mayor for more than five hours.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has publicly feuded with Mayor Bill de Blasio, in his budget plan proposes cutting up to $800 million in funds to New York City. Several years ago, the state agreed to absorb yearly increases in Medicaid spending from the city and the state’s counties. In his budget, Cuomo proposes that the state still cover the counties’ costs, but reverse policy for New York City and require that it cover any increased costs beyond 2 percent. De Blasio asked the legislators at the budget hearing to reconsider.

“Help us ensure our fiscal stability, for the good of all,” de Blasio said.

The mayor tried to explain that he wants to adequately ensure that the city has enough money in case of an economic downturn, but he was interrupted by Senate Finance Committee Chair Cathy Young, a Republican who seemed to side with Cuomo that the cuts are warranted. Sen. Young offered a new reason for the claw back of the money. Young represents some of the most economically challenged counties in the state, including Cattaraugus and Alleghany in Western New York. She said local governments in her district are struggling under a property tax cap that will permit no growth of taxes this year. That tax cap does not apply to New York City.

“We have very poor counties upstate,” Young said. “That’s just wrong.”

Young says the City "clearly has the resources” to make up the difference. De Blasio reminded Young that he is familiar with upstate and some of it’s issues from when he was regional director for HUD under President Bill Clinton. And, he said New York City’s economic prosperity is helping the rest of the state  because the City pays more in taxes overall than it gets back from the state.

“Our ability to succeed affects every one else,” de Blasio said. “And everyone else’s reality affects us.”

While de Blasio was testifying, the state senate met briefly to approve a one house bill to extend the property tax cap to New York City.

Cuomo also proposes that the City pay for 1/3 of the expenses of the vast City University of New York system, changing a long time policy begun during New York City’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s.

Young, once again raising an upstate downstate divide, said 71 percent of CUNY’s students are from New York City.

“But, the entire bill for the CUNY system is picked up by the taxpayers of New York State,” Young said.

The Senate Republicans are also in agreement with Cuomo on a third budget issue. In fact, Young echoed, almost word for word, an argument made by Cuomo’s budget spokesman. The state has helped pay for the refinancing  of the Big Mac bonds associated with the city’s fiscal crisis 40 years ago. Now, Cuomo wants the state to take back the savings from the refinance. The Cuomo budget spokesman, in an article in Politico, compared the state’s new position to an uncle paying the full mortgage on your house, then deserving the savings when you refinance your house later on. Young repeated that analogy to the mayor.

De Blasio opposed senate Republicans in the 2014 elections. He backed Democratic candidates in an unsuccessful attempt to wrest control away from the GOP.

Afterward, the Mayor had a private meeting with the Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan. He brushed off questions about any tensions with the GOP, saying he’s not surprised that he might have ideological differences with the GOP Senators.

“I still think it was respectful,” de Blasio said. “It was a pretty informed and fair hearing.”

Cuomo has since backed off from his budget cuts to the city, saying he merely wants to cut bureaucratic waste and that the city won’t end up paying an extra penny. De Blasio said he’ll take the governor  at his word.

Democrats at the hearing continued to express concern, though. Sen. Adriano Espaillat said the reductions remain written into the budget.

“A cut is a cut,” Espaillat said.

De Blasio admits that if the governor’s budget plan is adopted it would have a major impact on the city’s finances.

Altogether, the lawmakers grilled the mayor for a record 4.5 hours, leaving little time for the mayors of upstate cities to testify.

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.