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De Blasio Push for Universal Pre-K Is Missing the Mark, Critics Say

By Colby Hamilton on February 19, 2014 6:49am 

 Mayor Bill de Blasio's efforts to move lawmakers in Albany to allow him to raise income taxes to pay for universal pre-kindergarten appear to be foundering.
Mayor Bill de Blasio's efforts to move lawmakers in Albany to allow him to raise income taxes to pay for universal pre-kindergarten appear to be foundering.
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DNAinfo/Colby Hamilton

CIVIC CENTER — If Mayor Bill de Blasio fails to convince Albany lawmakers to approve his plan to pay for universal pre-K by taxing the city's richest residents, he has only himself to blame, critics say.

With all the effort that de Blasio and his team have spent going to Albany to pitch lawmakers on his UPK tax, he has failed to shore up support from key officials closer to home, including even Democratic state senators who once expressed interest in backing him, they told DNAinfo New York.

"Nobody's lobbied me. I've tried to get a meeting with his legislative people in Albany. I don't even get a return phone call. I don't know where all this nonsense about lobbying is," said Queens Democratic state Sen. Tony Avella, who had been interested in supporting a version of de Blasio's tax, on the condition the annual income threshold would be $1 million, rather than a half-million.

“That says to me either they don't know what they're doing or they think they have the votes and they don't have to lobby anyone, which I think is a serious miscalculation," Avella added, saying the radio silence drove him to support Cuomo's universal pre-K plan instead.

"As it stands now, I'm supporting the governor's proposal."

Those on both sides of the aisle in Albany say de Blasio's unwillingness to "play politics" and failure to court those whose backing he needs is jeopardizing his chances of success.

"The bottom line is that we're just not going to play Albany insider politics," de Blasio's team reiterated in an email to DNAinfo on Monday. "We're going to focus on getting pre-K for kids and convincing folks in the city and the state that it’s what right for all of us."

But those close to the negotiations say de Blasio's one-dimensional demands are falling on deaf ears in Albany, as both Senate Democrats and Republicans are aligning themselves with Cuomo's plan to pay for statewide UPK instead.

"He couldn't accept victory when the governor offered it to him, partly because he completely misread the [state] Senate politics, and partly because he thought he could roll Andrew Cuomo, who is a guy that doesn't get rolled," said a state legislative insider, referring to de Blasio's rejection of Cuomo's initial offer to pay for universal pre-K in the city using state funds.

De Blasio and Cuomo have been locked in a stalemate for weeks over how to pay for new pre-K seats in the city. De Blasio pushed a tax increase on the city's wealthiest residents, which requires approval from Cuomo and the state Legislature.

Cuomo, though, counter-offered with a plan to pay for pre-K across the state, and said he would refuse to allow de Blasio's tax increase. De Blasio's supporters have questioned Cuomo's pledge, noting that similar state promises had failed in the past.

Avella's not the only Democratic senator to move toward Cuomo. Last week, Democratic state Sen. Tim Kennedy of Buffalo released a statement that stuck close to Cuomo's argument that a UPK plan just for the city would set up an unequal "tale of two states."

"If we all agree on the importance of early education, then we must turn our focus to a plan that would provide universal pre-K to the entire state, not just New York City," Kennedy said.

Even de Blasio's supporters in New York City can't guarantee that the mayor's plan has enough votes to clear the Senate.

Bronx state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat who supports de Blasio's UPK tax plan, wouldn't guarantee passage of the tax, saying, "It's only February. We have a lot of discussions left to have. Hopefully by the end we can figure out a way to get this done."

"There is always more than one way," he added.

Bronx Democratic state Sen. Jose Serrano Jr., who supports de Blasio's UPK plan, added that there's much time left for the Legislature to get behind it.

"So many of these decisions are made at the last minute," Serrano said.

Sources said de Blasio's team made a key tactical error by courting the wrong faction of Senate Democrats — by cozying up to the co-leader of the Senate and head of the Independent Democratic Conference, Jeff Klein of the Bronx, to push the UPK plan through.

Klein led the breakaway group that fractured the Senate Democratic majority in 2011 and joined with the Republicans — but he has struggled to pass liberal legislation with the help of either his alienated former Democratic colleagues or his new Republican governing partners, such as on expanded abortion rights legislation and state campaign finance reform, sources said.

"Klein has not shown the ability to get a single thing done," said one Albany insider.

“Senate Democrats quite frankly were never properly engaged because de Blasio was walking around with Jeff Klein," said another.

In a statement, a Klein spokesman reiterated the senator's public support for de Blasio's UPK push — support that has wavered somewhat over the past week.

"There is no bigger champion of Mayor de Blasio's universal pre-K plan in Albany than Senator Klein," his spokesman said in an emailed statement. "But we will not respond to anonymous wags in the peanut gallery who'd rather criticize Mayor de Blasio and Senator Klein than help them make universal pre-K a reality for our kids."

De Blasio's team has also failed to make headway with Republican senators, led by Dean Skelos, who remain convinced that the mayor's administration is using UPK as an excuse to get additional tax revenue to pay for labor contracts instead, sources said.

“This has nothing to [do with] kids. This has everything to do with union contracts,” said one source close to the Senate Republican conference. “That's what everybody is understanding it to be up here.”

De Blasio's team bashed Skelos last week when the Rockville Centre GOP leader threatened to never let the UPK tax bill come up for a vote.

Insiders say de Blasio continues to torpedo his chances by underestimating the work it will take to win over the powers that be in Albany.

“Every mayor has ambitions that get dashed on the rocks of Albany,” said a state legislative insider. “Rarely does a mayor come to Albany thinking that he can roll over the governor and the Legislature in quite the way that Bill de Blasio has done with UPK.”

In addition, sources say, de Blasio’s inability to refine his argument for the tax hike beyond simply saying the city needed it allowed Cuomo and his allies to frame the request as an upstate-versus-downstate issue, with Cuomo gaining support for advocating statewide universal pre-K.

“There has been no new messaging since [de Blasio] saying, ‘I want this.’ It's just been different versions,” said a source close to key state legislators and city officials. “Repeating yourself doesn't get it done.”

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