The FY 2017 NYC budget is near completion, well ahead of schedule. By all accounts it will be completed this week. Why are negotiations concluding so soon, when the council has until June 30 to get it done?
A point of distinction that the current administration has drawn repeatedly between itself and the Bloomberg/Quinn years is the transparency and efficiency of the budget process. Under the previous administration, goes the argument, we were subjected to a “budget dance.” The mayor would present an executive budget that called for closing firehouses or ending HASA funding, or some other egregious act. The council in the person of Speaker Quinn would then fight valiantly for restoration of the funding, and in the end the mayor would concede defeat. Finally the mayor and speaker would stage a wee-hours “handshake” demonstrating their exhausting labor to reach a deal.
The charade was obvious to everyone. And to their credit, Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito swore to end the budget dance. But they have replaced it with something that is thinner and just as manifestly false—call it the “budget lockstep.”
The new process looks like this: the mayor doesn’t bother pretending to cut anything essential. The council calls for some new program: last year it was hiring and deploying 1000 new cops. The mayor pretends to oppose the new spending, but gives in at the end. The mayor and council congratulate each other.
The 1000 new cops gave Mark-Viverito the opportunity to appear independent of the mayor, and to promote an issue that cut against the grain of her anti-incarceration, decriminalization, anti-Broken Windows approach to public safety. Sure enough, profiles appeared in the press touting the speaker’s tough contrarian stance, and Mark-Viverito was given a lever to obtain some crack of daylight between her and de Blasio.
In reality, however, the 1000 cops was a ploy. It was always a foregone conclusion that it would happen…the same way that Bloomberg was never going to close the firehouses.
In our city’s “strong mayor” system, the mayor holds all the cards of the budget process. Out of 83 billion dollars in the expense budget, the council is given a few hundred million to play with. The rest is determined entirely by the mayor’s office. The reality of the budget process is that there actually isn’t one. But for the sake of appearances it is important to maintain the illusion that the council is deeply involved. It would be uncharitable, therefore, if the mayor didn’t give the council the opportunity to stand up and pretend to challenge him on some media-friendly point.
This year, I predict the following: the mayor will announce that he didn’t want to fully fund the Summer Youth Employment Program. He will say that he wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but the Council led by Melissa Mark-Viverito forced him to the wall. Now all city youth will have the opportunity to get a government-funded job, thanks to the progressive leadership and good stewardship of the budget process by Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and the rest of the Budget Negotiating Team, etc etc.
It is important to get the budget done this week in order to maximize media coverage of the SYEP story as the school year draws to a close. It will also give the mayor another opportunity to divert attention from his growing scandals and dismal approval ratings, by promoting another instance of a functional municipal government.