Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Home Rule

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Mayor Bill de Blasio and governor Andrew Cuomo can’t seem to agree on anything, yet it’s the city that seems to be getting short shrift. Our new mayor may have rode in on a landslide mandate, but thus far it’s been snub after snub from Albany. Admittedly, it was predicted during his campaign that there would be problems when it came to de Blasio’s “tax the rich to pay for pre-kindergarten” plan. His plans for a higher city minimum wage law, a la San Francisco, however, also requires state approval that is not forthcoming.

This time, Cuomo argues that the city would be less competitive with its neighbors, forgetting apparently that the city already has the highest tax rate of the country yet still can’t accommodate new residents quickly enough, or that a “race to the bottom” competition is really more the modus operandi of Tea Party representatives such as Indiana governor Mike Pence. Pundits surmise that Cuomo’s current shift to the right is part of a personal bid for the presidency, but this sort of action has more historical precedent than that.

New York City and New York State have sparred on money earmarked for Housing and Urban Development, money earmarked for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, money earmarked for the Department of Education, money earmarked for Homeland Security in the wake of September 11th, money earmarked for Hurricane Sandy relief, money earmarked for welfare and Medicaid, and more; each time the city had to beg the state to release federal funds directed towards the city, and each time the state balked and dragged its heels. Coffers in institutions that mainly supported the city, like the MTA and HUD, have been routinely raided by state agencies looking to shore up upstate spending. We can’t even set our own rent regulation; the very heart of urban living: That must go through the state, despite the fact that 85% of rent regulated units in the state are in the city.

In short, if half the population of the state can’t motivate the governor into action, New York City has a Home Rule problem. Indeed, it’s been the driver for every secession movement the city has had in recent memory: From writer Norman Mailer’s 1969 mayoral bid to councilman Peter Vallone’s 2003 referendum. In Vallone’s words when he resurrected his plan in 2008,

“It would be much, much simpler to be able to govern 8.5 million people without having to ask legislators who represent villages on the Canadian border for permission before we do anything,” Mr. Vallone said.

The problem has always been, of course, that there is no secession without the state assembly allowing it, and the state has no incentive or intention of allowing its cash cow to run off. As then-mayor Bloomberg complained then-governor Eliot Spitzer in 2008, the city pays $11 billion more in taxes than it gets back in services, and the state regularly short-changes the city on everything it has control over. Should the state cede control of the city, that’s a financial hole further deepening the misery of what is already a depressed region. Short of being the dumping grounds for colleges and prisons, upstate New York is a rust belt dead-zone hemorrhaging anybody with the wherewithal to leave that’s been compared unfavorably (!) to Appalachia. The state needs the city desperately. The city, on the other hand, has little need for the state.

Of course, the city has once been on the side of the needy, as when it found itself at risk of default in 1975. However, the city had to ask (unsuccessfully) for federal aid because the state refused to bail it out: Despite paying out more in taxes, the city did not receive financial help from the state. The state instead decided to saddle the city with an Emergency Financial Control Board that put the state in charge of the city’s budget and took to slashing services, laying off thousands and abandoning portions of the city. To quote Alan Finder from the New York Times in 1986,

The panel, made up of the governor, the mayor, the city and state comptrollers and three business executives appointed by the governor, was so aggressive in its belt-tightening that at one point Mayor Beame said the state was allowing the city little more than the power to tax residents more heavily.

Suffice it to say, despite having near-equal proportions of the population, New York City and upstate New York have never been equal partners. If anything, the concept of monetary redress to economically-depressed regions should be a federal issue, rather than a giveaway dictated by the state’s ability to take for itself out of city coffers and control city policy. That de Blasio can’t set minimum wage laws in the city when the cost of living in the metropole is twice that of upstate cities like Buffalo or Rochester is disturbing, especially considering the successes of San Francisco and Washington DC, and that Los Angeles is likely to work out a similar arrangement. No matter Cuomo’s counter-arguments, what’s really at stake here is New York City’s ability to govern itself.

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