New York City's Wishful Declaration of Independence

If Michael Bloomberg wasn’t such a practical man, he could be forgiven for preaching secession by now. Yes, independence for New York City — the centerpiece of Norman Mailer’s quirky platform in 1969 when, with Jimmy Breslin as his running mate, he campaigned for mayor. They did not, you may recall, win.

Still, New York City, the 51st State, is one tempting notion, unrealistic as it is. New York City carries the state financially, each year sending many more billions of dollars to Albany than it gets back. In return for being New York’s economic engine, the city gets the privilege of deferring to Albany for just about everything it wants.

No wonder the mayor’s recent State of the City address focused on plans and programs he could not control. Because the city is a creature of the state, where more often than not, lawmakers — in the thrall of unions and other special interests that finance their campaigns — overrule the city to please their patrons. Just as bad, they impose expensive obligations on the city with those dreaded mandates that drive mayors and county executives to distraction.

“The Legislature, with impunity, imposes costs on local governments regardless of the revenues,’’ says Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City. “What the mayor and other county executives are saying is, you cannot get blood out of stone. We can no longer operate the state this way. You have to give us flexibility to manage.”

Bloomberg’s echoes the plaints of many predecessors, going way, way back. As Douglas Muzzio of Baruch College has noted, Mayor Fernando Wood, in vain pursuit of self-government, complained in an angry speech about the "odious and oppressive connection" to the state legislature. “Our burdens have been increased, our substance eaten out.’’ And that was in 1861, when New York consisted only of the island of Manhattan.

Mayor Bloomberg would recognize Woods’s frustration. He wants the city to regain control over negotiating pensions of city employees, a prerogative lost in 1973 when the Legislature amended state law while the city was approaching financial ruin. Bloomberg wants the freedom to eliminate an annual payment — currently about $12,000 — to tens of thousands of retired police officers and firefighters, to the fury of the police and fire unions who won the payments from Mayor John V. Lindsay.

Bloomberg also wants the city to manage services it now pays Albany to administer, including the supervision of juvenile jails and collection of city income taxes (though he probably is after a fee reduction from Albany, not the authority to collect city income taxes). He wants the right to overturn the last-hired, first-fired system of laying off teachers, and more city representation — now marginal — on the MTA board.

Be careful what you wish for, some political pros warn Bloomberg, cautioning that an empowered City Council, courted and lobbied by the same special interests that now concentrate their firepower on Albany, could represent a new headache for this and future mayors.

That is clearly a risk Bloomberg is willing to take, if he could. His chances of getting reform are not great, if history is any guide. Though for the first time, some are saying it is not impossible. (That, for Albany, is progress.)

The theory: that the state’s severe fiscal crisis could force incremental political reform. There are no rabbits left to pull out of the hat and the whole state is hurting. If Governor Andrew Cuomo succeeds in his goal of making it harder for localities to raise property taxes — usually referred to as a property tax cap — then maybe this time, lawmakers will have to lift some mandates so local governments can pay their bills.

“Could there be mandate relief? If the governor leads, and he has not yet,’’ said E.J. McMahon, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “I think there is a critical mass in both houses to rally behind someone to push for reform, but the legislature won’t do it unless it has coverage from the governor because mandate relief inevitably involves doing things unions do not like.’’

Governor Andrew Cuomo has voiced unspecified support for reform, and named a “Mandate Relief Redesign Team.’’ Well, that too, for Albany, is progress, though so far, not hardly enough progress to balance the budget or mollify a smoldering mayor.

Joyce Purnick is a political analyst for WNYC and author of "Mike Bloomberg, Money, Power, Politics," was an editor, reporter and columnist at The New York Times for 29 years and the long-time author of the award-winning “Metro Matters” column. A native New Yorker educated in its public schools, Purnick has, so far, covered six mayors of New York.