The Bloomberg administration is threatening to sue the City Council over a new welfare and education law the mayor says would severely strap the city for cash, but the mayor is passing up a precious opportunity to enforce the measure without retaliation from the feds.

On April 9, the City Council overrode a mayoral veto by passing the Council’s Access to Training and Education (CATE) bill, which allows New Yorkers on welfare to count time spent in the classroom or in job training programs toward their work requirements for public assistance. These educational options, say CATE supporters, are crucial so that recipients can move into permanent jobs. Bloomberg immediately retorted that he would challenge the law in court, arguing that it contradicts the federal government’s work mandates and will subject the city to financial penalties.

But if there is any time when the education and training law can be enforced without going against federal requirements, it is now. Current federal welfare law allows states to reduce their work requirements whenever their welfare rolls go down. So for every 1 percent drop in welfare caseload since 1995, states can reduce the number of welfare recipients required to work by 1 percent.

Because of the dramatic caseload drop in New York City from 1 million in 1996 to 436,000 today, current requirements for work participation here are effectively zero.

Of course, that is expected to change once Congress reauthorizes the federal welfare reform bill. The House bill calls for shortening the time frame of the caseload reduction credit by comparing today’s caseloads to those from more recent years; the Senate bill rewards states only for moving recipients into full-time employment. Because the number of welfare cases has declined at a slower rate in recent years–it dropped by 18 percent from 1997 to 1998, and by 2 percent from 2001 to 2002–states’ reduction credits could be decimated, predicts Nisha Patel of the Center for Law and Social Policy. States would then be required to have between 55 and 70 percent of their welfare clients in work activities.

There is still some time, though. While insiders say Congress could pass a new welfare bill as soon as this month, given the pace of things in Washington, it is not likely to go into effect until late 2004. Barring legal wrangling with the mayoral administration, city legislators say CATE could be implemented within 90 days.

And besides, add CATE supporters, only a small fraction of New Yorkers on welfare are likely to take advantage of the city law. “There are a limited number of slots at CUNY, there are admissions standards, and we’re not providing financial assistance,” says Alex Navarro, spokesperson for City Councilmember Bill deBlasio. “The bill isn’t giving people a get-into-college-free card.”