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New York City pre-K plan finds favor among state voters

Liberal Democrat Bill de Blasio speaks during his election victory party at the Park Slope Armory in New York November 5, 2013. REUTERS/Shan
Liberal Democrat Bill de Blasio speaks during his election victory party at the Park Slope Armory in New York November 5, 2013. REUTERS/Shan

By Edith Honan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Raising taxes on New York City's highest earners to pay for early education programs, a signature proposal of Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, has the backing of more than six in 10 New York state voters, according to a poll released on Wednesday.

De Blasio, a liberal Democrat who takes office in January, is expected to face strong opposition to the plan from the politically divided state legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who is up for re-election next year and has committed to keeping tax rates in check.

The fact that a large majority of state voters favor the plan could give De Blasio, who won over 70 percent of the vote in November's election, fresh leverage as he seeks to deliver on a centerpiece issue of his campaign.

The Quinnipiac University poll found that more than 90 percent of state Democrats and 60 percent of independents back the idea, while nearly 60 percent of state Republicans oppose it. The proposal has support in every region of the state.

But Republicans "still have a lot to say about what happens in Albany," said Quinnipiac's Maurice Carroll.

In the state Senate, where a power-sharing deal gives Republicans partial control, some Republicans have spoken out against a tax hike, arguing it would make the state less competitive. Senate co-leader Jeffrey D. Klein and state Assembly leader Sheldon Silver, both Democrats, have said they support the plan.

The proposal calls for increasing city income taxes from 3.9 percent to 4.4 percent on those who make over $500,000 to provide universal access to pre-kindergarten and middle-school after-school programs.

De Blasio argues that adding tens of thousands of 4-year-olds to the city's pre-K rolls will help narrow the achievement gap and improve the preparation of black and Latino pupils.

During the city's hard-fought Democratic mayoral primary, de Blasio's rivals said the plan was poorly conceived, and questioned whether he would be able to get it through Albany.

While voters seem to like the proposal, it is not clear that popular support will translate to support among lawmakers.

Carroll also noted that only 18 percent of state voters list increased funding for schools as a top priority, suggesting de Blasio's plan could face an uphill fight.

The telephone survey of 1,337 New York State voters was conducted from November 20-24, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.

While so-called "millionaire's tax" plans have been controversial across the country, in states like New York they often enjoy broad popular support. But expanding pre-K access, pushed by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address in February, has also been a Democratic priority.

Children from low-income families come into school with a far more limited vocabulary, which can hold back their academic progress. High quality pre-schools aim to build up those critical skills with heavy emphasis on literacy, conversation and creative play.

But research on the benefits of pre-school programs like the federally subsidized Head Start has produced mixed results.

An analysis by the New York's publicly funded Independent Budget Office shows that earners making $750,000 to $1 million annually would pay an extra $1,335 to $2,670 with the new surcharge. About 51,300 of New York's 3.5 million taxpayers would be required to pay the tax, the IBO said.

(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Gunna Dickson)

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