Forget about baseball, folks. The hottest game in town between now and early summer is the city's budget. It's a bloodsport of dueling tax-cut proposals by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller.
First up is the "glass-is-half- empty" team, led by our billionaire businessman-turned-politician. Proposing a $46.9-billion budget for fiscal year 2005 (beginning July 1), the mayor declared himself to be "cautiously optimistic," while painting a fiscal picture with $791 million more in revenues and $800 million more in spending than he predicted just four months ago.
Bloomberg has declared that New York City's recession "has ended, or at least is ameliorated, with jobs coming back." But his statistics show a net loss of 166,000 private-sector jobs since 2000, with a mere 16,000 jobs being added between 2003 and 2004, leading some fans in the bleachers to question his grasp of the stats.
But in his new budget he seems to be spending Wall Street revenues as fast as they come in, while decrying the spiraling costs for Medicaid, municipal workers' pensions and fringe benefits, debt service, subsidies to the Transit Authority, and other nondiscretionary costs over which the city has little to no control. He insisted that "fiscal restraint still needs to be the order of the day," and that "we cannot spend our way back into a crisis."
The mayor proved that he does feel your pain - at least if you're a homeowner. He wants Albany to give each of you a $400 property-tax rebate at a cost of $250 million in city revenues, and to forgo implementing the $44-million Absentee Landlord Tax passed just last summer. In his playbook, the city will exercise the necessary fiscal restraint by closing libraries the equivalent of another day a week, having needy seniors go without weekend meals, failing to fund more than 1,500 desperately needed day-care slots, and making city youth compete for thousands of fewer summer jobs. If you're a renter, mass- transit user, a student at a city college, or an average New Yorker who's been nickled and dimed to death during the current fiscal crisis, don't look for relief from him any time soon.
The opposing team is the "glass-is-half-full" players, led by City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, a much younger politician than Bloomberg. Like him, he is from Manhattan's "Silk Stocking" Upper East Side, and wants to be mayor. Miller and his crew are betting that the mayor's revenue estimates are too low, and his expense predictions too high. Miller's strategy is to propose giving away even more in tax cuts to a broader group of New Yorkers, while spending more on public services.
No matter which team's tax cuts appeal to you more, there's a reality check that both are ignoring. Sad to say, the city is, in fact, in no financial condition to implement any tax cuts at this time. New York City is facing a whopping $3.8-billion budget hole just a year from now, and a $4.2-billion gap in two years. As a result of deep tax cuts during the Giuliani years, the city continues to face a structural gap - not a cash-flow problem-between its regular revenues and its essential expenses.
Making things worse, neither team's plan deals with some very real financial risks. For example, it's almost inevitable that the Campaign for Fiscal Equity's successful lawsuit challenging the state's inadequate educational funding will result in significant additional educational costs for the city to bear. Likewise, the city might not receive the additional $400 million in state aid it's been counting on. New labor contracts for the police and the teachers' unions may exceed the mayor's revised estimates, and the city could lose its lawsuit to refinance city MAC bonds from the 1970s fiscal crisis. With any of these scenarios, the city's budget would be thrown deep into the red, resulting either in cuts in essential public services or in the need to raise revenues. In an election year, which alternative is more likely?
Both teams are playing pander-ball politics. The east and west wings of City Hall are blowing fiscal fog - a deliberate effort to obscure the city's serious continuing fiscal distress. However much New Yorkers deserve a tax break, they need good government even more. It's time both teams stepped up to the plate and told the truth.
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.