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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Cuomo, de Blasio pre-K battle heats up

Pre-kindergarten teacher Angela Tirone helps student Jarrell Love,

Pre-kindergarten teacher Angela Tirone helps student Jarrell Love, 4, write a sentence about characters in the book, "The Mitten" at West Hertel Academy in Buffalo. (Jan. 15, 2014) Credit: AP

Fireworks have broken out over the funding of early-childhood education, with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo now in full pushback mode against Mayor Bill de Blasio's tax-the-rich demand.

Cuomo and his aides have begun to suggest openly what they've already said privately -- that fellow Democrat de Blasio's requested surcharge on New York City's wealthiest is driven by something other than the cause of universal pre-K.

De Blasio insists his tax push is quite specifically about creating a dedicated revenue stream for that purpose. He said so Thursday in a speech in Washington to other mayors from around the nation.

But now that the governor has called in his executive budget for funding universal pre-K statewide with state money, he's begun asking why de Blasio won't take "yes" for an answer.

De Blasio and allies say an income-tax surcharge (which requires state approval) provides a more reliable source of support than state allocations of future funds.

But at least one Cuomo ally has privately expressed the belief that de Blasio really wants the tax to help fund employee pay raises.

The argument goes that limited classroom space doesn't allow de Blasio to get all his desired pre-K slots right away even if he had all the money. And unsettled contracts with municipal workers are de Blasio's single biggest fiscal challenge, the source says -- though not as attractive a cause to rally the public around.

Publicly, Cuomo & Co. haven't explicitly ascribed such a hidden motive to de Blasio. But their statements sound consistent with those of Joe Lhota -- de Blasio's GOP opponent last fall -- when he called the pre-K levy "a tax in search of an idea."

Larry Schwartz, secretary to the governor, said on WNYC radio Tuesday: "The state is paying for what Mayor de Blasio wants. Why tax just for taxing's sake?" Cuomo himself was quoted as telling one editorial board that even if the pre-K funding is flush, de Blasio will push for the tax. "If it's not pre-K," Cuomo said, "it'll be something else."

Former Cuomo secretary Steve M. Cohen published an analysis this week in the journal City & State that says while de Blasio indeed is popular, "it would be misguided to believe that there is ineffable and unwavering support for this mayor."

With battle lines hardening, some see Cuomo taking hits from his left. Case in point: Communication Workers Local 1180 president Arthur Cheliotes, a de Blasio backer, told Newsday's Matthew Chayes Thursday that Cuomo will "have to decide if he's a governor of all the people or just the rich people."

"He's a very stubborn man," Cheliotes said.

For this legislative session, de Blasio and Cuomo have divergent political goals. De Blasio, recently inaugurated, is lobbying to get his popular signature program up and running. Cuomo is seeking re-election to a second term and wants to cut taxes, not help hike them.

So far, this clash, at least publicly, is confined to differences in how to reach a common goal -- expanding pre-K. But history shows a potential for relations between a New York City mayor and a New York State governor to sink quite low.

Examples of hard collisions are abundant: Gov. Hugh Carey and Mayor Abe Beame, Gov. Mario Cuomo and Mayor Ed Koch, Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay.

In all those cases, the mayor and governor -- like today's incumbents -- belonged to the same party.

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